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Becoming Disabled

September 27, 1988 — Joint House-Senate Hearing on Discrimination on the Basis of Disability, Washington DC


It is really a privilege to be here with all of you today. My name is Judy Heumann. I am the oldest of three children born to an immigrant family. Like most other Americans I was born without a disability. When I was one and a half years old, I contracted polio. Becoming disabled changed my family’s life and mine forever.

My disability has made me a target for arbitrary and capricious prejudices from many person with whom I come into contact. Over the years experience has taught us that we must be constantly aware of people’s attempts to discriminate against us. We must be prepared at every moment to fight this discrimination. 

The average American is not, nor should they have to be, prepared to fight every day of their life for basic civil rights. All too many incidences of discrimination have gone by undefended because of lack of protection under the law.

In the past, disability has been a cause for shame. This forced acceptance of second-class citizenship has stripped us, as disabled people, of pride and dignity. This is not the way we as Americans should have to live their lives.

When I was five, my mother proudly pushed my wheelchair to our local public school where I was promptly refused admission because the principal ruled I was “a fire hazard.” I was forced to go on home instruction, receiving one hour of education twice a week for three and a half years. Was this the America of my parents’ dreams?

My entrance into mainstream society was blocked by discrimination and segregation. Segregation was not only on an institutional level, but also acted as an obstruction to social integration. As a teenager, I could not travel with my friends on the bus because it was not accessible. At my graduation from high school, the principal attempted to prevent me from accepting an award in a ceremony on-stage simply because I was in a wheelchair. 

When I was nineteen, the house mother of my college dormitory refused me admission into the dorm because I was in a wheelchair and needed assistance. When I was twenty one years old I was denied an elementary school teaching credential because of “paralysis of both lower extremities sequelae of poliomyelitis.” At the time I didn’t know what sequelae meant. I went to the dictionary and looked it up and found out that it was “because of.” So it was obviously because of my disability that I was discriminated against.

At the age of twenty five I was told to leave a plane on my return trip to my job here in the U.S. senate because I was flying without an attendant. In 1981, an attempt was made to forcibly remove me and another disabled friend from an auction house because we were “disgusting to look at.” In 1983 a manager of a movie theater attempted to keep my disabled friend and myself out of his theater because we could not transfer out of our wheelchairs.

These are only a few examples of discrimination I have faced in my 40-year life. I’ve successfully fought all of these attempted actions of discriminations through immediate aggressive confrontation or litigation. But this stigma scars for life. Many disabled persons experience discrimination of the same magnitude, but not everyone possesses the intestinal fortitude and has the support of family and friends required to face up to these daily societal barriers. 

Sadly, these are not isolated examples true only in the past tense. This is an ongoing social phenomenon which haunts our lives at every minute.

I have been told throughout my life to be understanding of these people’s actions, “They don’t know any better.” Neither I, nor any one of the 42 million other people with disabilities, can wait for the 200 million nondisabled Americans to become educated to the fact that disability does not negate our entitlement to the same constitutional right as they have.

Just as other civil rights legislation has made previously sanctioned discrimination illegal, so too will the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1988. Outlaw protectivist, paternalistic, ignorant discrimination against all persons with disabilities.

We, as disabled persons, are here today to insure for the class of disabled Americans the ordinary daily life that nondisabled Americans too often take for granted. The right to ride a bus or a train, the right to any job for which we are qualified, the right to enter any theater, restaurant or public accommodation, the right to purchase a home or rent an apartment, the right to appropriate communication.
Whether you have HIV infection, cancer, heart disease, back problems, Epilepsy, Diabetes, Polio, Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, are deaf or blind, discrimination affects all of us the same. Simply put, we are here today to say that people in our society have been raised with prejudicial attitudes that have resulted in extreme discrimination against the 42 million persons with disabilities in the United States.

Discrimination is intolerable. The U.S. Congress is to be commended for its introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The passage of this monumental legislation will make it clear that our government will no longer allow the largest minority group in the United States to be denied equal opportunity. 

You have all heard our testimony today. But you have also been aware of these stories for many years. As elected representatives, you must act without delay to end these reprehensible acts of discrimination. To do any less is immoral.



Source: Joint Hearing Before the Subcommittee on the Handicapped of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate, and the Subcommittee on Select Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, One Hundredth Congress, Second Session on S. 2345, September 27, 1988 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1989), pp. 74-76.