We’re going two for two—our second author to appear this year on The Daily Show! On March 4, Trevor Noah interviewed disability rights activist Judith Heumann in honor of Women’s History Month. And we’re squeeing again like the book groupies we are!
“Reading this book, I expected to be impressed by it, but I wasn’t quite expecting how much of a badass you would be,” Noah told Heumann. And he’s right: she’s a total badass! He went on to say, “You don’t just advocate for human rights and rights for people with disabilities; you fight for them and you fight for them with a passion.”
She gave powerful and inspiring anecdotes from her life, her experiences organizing demonstrations, which she wrote about with Kristen Joiner in Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist. By sharing her personal story of fighting for the right to receive an education, have a job, and just be human, she shed a light on the long-overlooked history of the Disability Rights Movement in the United States. She also spoke about how her story isn’t just hers alone.
Here are some highlights from the interview.
Trevor Noah: I specifically have taken for granted so many things in life that I’ve always felt have been there: ramps for getting into stores, for buses—all the measures we put in place to help everybody be part of society. You lived in a world where this wasn’t true, and you fought to make those changes. What was that world like?
Judith Heumann: I was born in 1947. I had polio in 1949. There were no federal laws that made it illegal to discriminate against many people. Obviously, the Civil Rights Act in the US didn’t come about until 1964, and the disability community was not included in that. There were no motorized wheelchairs at that time, because the technology wasn’t there. The school I went to wasn’t accessible.
TN: This has been the story of your life: defiantly reminding people or exposing to people how many obstacles so many people in our society face. As an able-bodied person, I take so many things for granted.
JH: I call you nondisabled, because the likelihood of your acquiring a disability, temporarily or permanently, is statistically very high.
TN: Did you just threaten me?
JH: Yes. Definitely!
TN: It’s been thirty years since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. Many would feel like everything has been done and everyone has access to what they need. What do you still feel needs to be improved, specifically in the United States?
JH: One of the big issues is that people with disabilities need to feel proud of who we are. We need not to be ashamed of who we are. What we find when we start speaking up about who we are, with pride and ownership that we have a right to be equal members of our society wherever we live, is that really makes a change.
Other gems of wisdom from Judith Heumann
My story isn’t my story; it’s really the story of many other people. Kristen Joiner, who helped me write this book—because it wouldn’t have come into being without her—friends of mine with disabilities living in different parts of the world are also talking about how this is their story. The issue of discrimination and oppression and how our lives have been limited and how people are really gaining back our voices.
I live in DC. In the Metro there, some of the most frequent users of the elevators are men and women who have babies and baby carriages. I think we really need to look at the kinds of accommodations that theoretically have been made for disabled people actually benefit so many other people. And people don’t even realize why they’re there!
Watch her full interview here:
Maybe we should have made the subtitle of her memoir “An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Badass.” Because her lifelong battle to achieve respect, acceptance, and inclusion in society invites us all to imagine and make real a world where we all belong.
Want to see how much of a badass she is? Check out Drunk History’s wonderful enactment (her other Comedy Central cameo!) about her leading the Section 504 sit-in and her 1977 portrait in Time’s 100 Women of the Year series!
About Judith Heumann
Judith Heumann is an internationally recognized leader in the Disability Rights Independent Living Movement. Her work with a wide range of activist organizations (including the Berkeley Center for Independent Living and the American Association of People with Disabilities), NGOs, and governments since the 1970s has contributed greatly to the development of human rights legislation and policy benefiting disabled people. She has advocated for disability rights at home and abroad, serving in the Clinton and Obama administrations and as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability and development. Connect with her on Twitter (@judithheumann) and Facebook (TheHeumannPerspective).