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Disability rights activist Judy Heumann talks intersectionality with CJL

Judy Heumann Headshot 2.3.2021.png
Long-time disability rights activist Judy Heumann.
Courtesy of Judy Heumann

“Discrimination dies with great difficulty.”

That’s the lesson Judy Heumann hopes students take away from her recent book “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.


Heumann spoke with over 150 students, parents, alumni, and staff from the University and 11 partner campuses in a Zoom event organized by Naomi Hess ’22 and Rabbi Ira Dounn of the Center for Jewish Life (CJL) on the night of Tuesday, Feb. 2. Moderators Hess and Katie Heinzer ’22 asked Heumann pre-submitted audience questions with topics ranging from intersectionality, to Jewish community, to media representation.

Hess is an Associate News Editor and Heinzer is an Associate Podcast Editor for The Daily Princetonian.

The event’s inception began two years ago when Hess suggested that the CJL host a themed Shabbat in celebration of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Having made the themed Friday night meal in February an annual occurrence, this year she broadened the scope of the audience, securing sponsorships from Hillel@Home, Hillel International’s People with Disabilities Employee Resource Group, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, the Undergraduate Student Government Projects Board, and the AccessAbility Center to invite renowned disability rights advocate Heumann to speak.

Heumann is Jewish and became paralyzed after contracting polio. In the early 1970s, she became New York City’s first teacher in a wheelchair. In 1977, she led a 28-day sit-in on federal property to advocate for enforcement of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the first federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability.

After holding positions within the Bill Clinton administration, the Department of Disability Services for the District of Columbia, and the World Bank, Heumann joined former President Barack Obama’s administration as the first Special Advisor for International Disability Rights.

Dounn said in an interview with the ‘Prince’ that Heumann was an ideal guest for the event.


She is “in many ways like a modern day prophet,” he noted, “someone who sees the problems of society and works to change them with a commitment to social justice and repair.”

Heumann recognized these issues from a young age, when she was denied access to a public education due to her disability and excluded from religious practices based on her gender.

She spoke about a more welcoming synagogue she attended as an adult that added a ramp and taught her how to participate in a ritual she had never had the opportunity to experience, asking attendees to question what they “are or are not doing to allow Jews with disabilities, visible and invisible, to really feel a part of whatever the activity may be.”

According to Hess, Princetonians have stepped up in response to this question in recent years. She gave an example of a change Rabbi Dounn made at the CJL to advance a feeling of inclusion: rather than asking the entire congregation to stand for blessings, he now says, “Please stand if you are able.”

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“That’s just a very small linguistic change, but it really shows me the efforts that Princeton is making to make sure I feel welcome and included,” Hess said.

Heumann also highlighted the importance of acceptance within the disability rights movement and its interaction with other causes, citing work by disability organizations to support people affected by AIDS and the resources Black Panthers offered to the Section 504 sit-ins.

She explained that the Jewish community has been active in both the Civil Rights and LGBTQ+ rights movements and shared that she drew inspiration from the sacrifices of civil rights activists who were willing to put their lives in danger to secure equality.

In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Heumann elaborated on the importance of an intersectional approach to activism at colleges.

“When looking at the role of organizing on campuses, I think we also really need to feel responsible for each other,” Heumann said. “We understand the barriers people face based on disability, on race, on gender, on sexual orientation, and religion and see that these barriers are not only adversely affecting an individual in a community but really adversely affecting society overall.”

Gabrielle Sudilovsky ’22, president of the Jewish-Latinx student group J-Lats, said she appreciated this focus on intersectionality and hoped other students left the event ready to engage in further conversation.

“Let’s keep talking about it and working to make campus better. Because campus can be much better, and the only way it’s going to change is if students are actively pushing,” Sudilovsky said.

The event had a similar focus on discussion. Heumann encouraged people with and without disabilities to engage with one another to create a welcoming community.

In her interview with the ‘Prince,’ Heumann deemed the strategy “coming together to go apart”: learning from those with similar and dissimilar experiences to improve your own life and gain a more complete perspective on the lives of others. 

The event’s Zoom chat became a platform for such exchanges.

Students from different campuses wrote about classes that centered the disability rights movement. Participants recommended books with main characters with disabilities, promoted events and educational resources for Jews with disabilities, and suggested inclusive language to be used in religious services.

When asked how she felt the event went, Heumann said she could only determine the answer in a few months.

“At the end of the day, it’s what will happen as a result of the discussion,“ she said.