Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist


One of the most influential disability rights activists in US history tells her personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job, and just be human. From the streets of Brooklyn and San Francisco to inside the halls of Washington, Being Heumann recounts Judy Heumann’s lifelong battle to achieve respect, acceptance, and inclusion in society that wasn’t built for all of us.

Paralyzed from polio at eighteen months, Judy’s struggle for equality began early in life. From fighting to attend grade school after being described as a “fire hazard” to later winning a lawsuit against the New York City school system for denying her a teacher’s license because of her paralysis, Judy’s actions set a precedent that fundamentally improved rights for disabled people.

Candid, intimate, and irreverent, Judy Heumann’s memoir about resistance to exclusion invites readers to imagine and make real a world in which we all belong.

Discussion questions from SOMN

  • Judy Heumann writes that “Most things are possible when you assume problems can be solved.” What do you think of this statement? In what ways did this philosophy impact Judy’s life and work?
  • There are many examples of intersectional organizing and coalition building in Judy’s memoir. Which groups supported and worked with disability rights activists in the memoir? Why do you think they supported the movement for disability rights?
  • Protections provided by the ADA include people with addictions to drugs and alcohol and people living with AIDS. These protections were intentionally made part of the law and were very controversial. Reflect on why it was important to Judy and other activists to include everyone in the disability rights movement. Contrast this with the way the women’s movement largely neglected to include women with disabilities in their organizing. What do you think of these two approaches?
  • Judy notes that press conferences began with instructions on language, outlining what is and isn’t appropriate language to use when talking or writing about individuals with disabilities. How might that have impacted the reporters and the news stories they wrote? Do you think language is important? Why?
  • Judy states that meetings didn’t start without an interpreter and that they didn’t end until everyone had a chance to participate and contribute. How was their approach different from how you have personally experienced meetings, discussions, or other decision-making processes? What are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
  • Judy writes that she never wished to not have a disability, and that from her perspective, all the barriers in her life came from outside her. What do you think of that statement?
  • There were a number of calls to action at the end of the book. What were they? Which ones do you think you’d like to act on personally?

Classroom activities from SOMN

  • The kids in Judy’s neighborhood included her in their games by being creative problem solvers. Using this as an example, research the Social Model of Disability and think of ways your school and community could remove barriers and include everyone.
  • Learn more about the state, federal, and international laws that affect individuals with disabilities. Choose one law to research individually or in groups. It could be one from the memoir or another of your choosing. Present your findings to the class.
  • Identify one thing you would like to see changed in Kansas regarding access and inclusion for individuals with disabilities. Research what laws may already be in place, identify what changes might be needed, and then write to your state representatives about your idea.
  • Watch the documentary “Crip Camp” as a class and discuss the film. Download educational guides and guides for parents.
  • Judy discusses representation, specifically in film, in her book. Watch this short PSA on representation and have students work independently or in groups to research films or TV shows with characters who have disabilities. Then have a class discussion on the ways those characters are portrayed, how many characters with disabilities are played by actors with disabilities, etc.
  • At the time of publication, the United States had yet to ratify the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Research the status of the CRPD in the US, then come up with one thing you can do as a class to urge ratification.