The only thing small about Judith E. Heumann is her physical stature. Listening to her speak at the Westchester Independent Living Center’s 1st Interdisciplinary Conference entitled “Uniting Systems – Empowering Lives” Friday was to experience a powerful, patient and thoughtful lesson on my country’s disability rights movement.

According to Independence Today, a publication of the Independent Living Center of the Hudson Valley, “Heumann served eight years in the Clinton administration as assistant secretary for the Department of Education, was a leader of the well-known 27-day sit-in in 1977 that led to the enforcement of access to federally funded buildings and transportation” and the list of her accomplishments goes on and on.

There is so much to this person, this woman’s message. In her speech she talked about a phenomenon all to common to those of us who live with a disability, work with people with disabilities or have a loved one with a disability; the way the world talks to you the day before your disability arrives and the way the world talks to you the day after is deeply disturbing. As a man who lives with a disability and who works with people who have sustained a disability through brain injuries, one of the most insidious realities I face daily is witnessing adults with disabilities being treated as if they are children, as if they are stupid or absent opinion or, worst of all, as if they are void of any value and rights. Some times I think those who inflict this treatment on others ought to be educated without judgment first. Then, if knowledge doesn’t do the trick and their demeaning behavior continues, which to my mind translates into knowing willful bigotry, they should be sentenced to spending a few days of their life in a wheelchair.

I cannot praise the Westchester Independent Living Center headed up by Joe Bravo and all who work there enough. What an extraordinary conference. And at the conference was Mel Tanzman, another extraordinary leader in the disability right’s movement, and Ralph W. Shields, and Nadine Bravo and on and on and on.

The fact that the names you’ve just “heard” are not household names is solid testimony to the distance we as a people need to travel when it comes to equal rights for people with disabilities. Actually, the real disability rests in the hearts and minds of those who dehumanize those labeled as disabled. For the latter, it is only a label, for the former, it is a definition.


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