An older woman sits smiling in a motorized wheelchair
Judith Heumann in Washington, D.C. on May 11, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Shuran Huang for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Judith Heumann, Jewish disability advocate who spurred a movement, dies at 75

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In Judith Heumann’s 2020 memoir, the lifelong advocate for people with disabilities describes feeling shocked upon being invited to read from the Torah at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley. Not only were women permitted to carry out the sacred task, unlike in the Orthodox synagogue of her Brooklyn childhood, but the bimah, or prayer platform, had been made accessible just for her.

“Oh my God, I thought, I’ve never been asked to do an aliyah,” Heumann wrote, using the Hebrew word for the ritual. “I learned how to do it.”

The moment was just one of many when Heumann, who died Saturday at 75, charted ground that had previously been off-limits to wheelchair users like her. Since contracting polio as a toddler, Heumann broke down barriers for disabled children and educators in New York City schools, protested until federal legislation protecting people with disabilities was passed and advised multiple presidential administrations on disability issues.

A cause of death was not immediately given for Heumann, whose website announced her death on Saturday in Washington, D.C. Heumann left Berkeley when she was tapped by the Clinton administration to serve as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services, and ended up living in D.C. for 30 years.

Philissa Cramer
Philissa Cramer

Philissa Cramer is editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

JTA

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