Author Judith Heumann speaks to MD about disability activism


Josh Shuster, Staff Writer

Abilities and disabilities is a subject that everybody can learn more about, Head of Middle Division (MD) Javaid Khan ‘92 said. Yesterday, the MD welcomed Judith Heumann, disability rights activist and author, to speak via Zoom at their weekly assembly. Internationally recognized as a disability rights leader, Heumann has worked with various nonprofit and government organizations such as the World Bank and State Department to develop legislation that provides more accessibility for disabled children and adults. 

This summer, MD students read Heumann’s new book, “Rolling Warrior: The Incredible, Sometimes Awkward, True Story of a Rebel Girl on Wheels Who Helped Spark a Revolution.” The novel is a young-adult adaptation of Heumann’s memoir, “Being Heumann,” which focused on her journey to achieve equal access for disabled people, MD Librarian Rachael Ricker said. Ricker reached out to Heumann about speaking at the assembly, she said.

“Rolling Warrior” was part of the MD’s annual summer reading, where students and faculty are expected to read a book, MD Dean of Faculty Eva Abbamonte said. “We always try to have the author of our ‘community read’ visit us in assembly. Last year, we read ‘They Called Us Enemy,’ and George Takei spoke with us in assembly,” she said. “Heumann is an amazing activist, an amazing person, and a real role-model.”

A committee of faculty volunteers decided the book for the community to read, Khan said. “This year, the committee identified Heumann’s book, ‘Rolling Warrior,’ and the people who read it said it was a great book and an accessible read for everybody.” 

All the students in the MD must read the chosen book each summer, Ricker said. “We think it’s important to have a shared reading experience in the Middle Division,” she said. “We believe that the simple act of reading a book together and discussing it as a group helps to build community.” Ricker hopes students will get to understand and empathize with Heumann’s experiences after they read her book.

After reading Heumann’s book, Anusha Goel (7) was shocked by the number of times Heumann had to fight for her rights as a disabled person, she said. “She had to push for something she should naturally have as a human being, like accessibility and getting into buildings.” Goel was inspired by Heumann’s resilience in her fight for disabled rights, she said. “Even though it can be hard to constantly keep pushing when you’re repeatedly told to back down, I thought it was really amazing how she is still fighting to this day,” Goel said.

Spanish teacher Dr. Rhashida Hilliard also admired Heumann’s resilience in her activism, she said. Heumann mentioned that sometimes politicians might seem like they are on your side, but then do not promote any meaningful change, Hilliard said. “I just liked the idea of [Heumann] continuing to stay the course, even if people try to sway or convince [her] they are on [her] side but then keep stalling.” Hilliard was impressed that Heumann continues to fight for disabled rights, she said.

Heumann no longer speaks at in-person presentations, so she visited the MD via Zoom, Abbamonte said. “It’s always compelling to hear a person’s story in their own words,” she said. Although she read “Rolling Warrior” and watched Heumann’s interview in the documentary, “Crip Camp,” seeing Heumann speak in-person was more meaningful, Abbamonte said.

For Isabel Mavrides-Calderón (12), meeting Heumann was “a dream come true,” she said. “I’ve been obsessed with [Heumann] since I was eleven years old. She is my idol because I know that so many of the rights I have and many other people have are because of her.” Mavrides-Calderón follows Heumann’s path in her activism for disabled rights, she said.

Ricker recalled a touching moment in the book when Heumann could not receive an award because there was no way for her to get onto the stage in her wheelchair. “In [Heumann’s] story, she relays the humiliation and frustration when she realizes that the stage is only accessible by stairs and her father has to lift her wheelchair onto the stage so that she can accept her award,” Ricker said. In her book, Heumann considered small and big ways that the world is set up for able bodied people and what it feels like to navigate this world in a wheelchair, Ricker said. “I was struck by the honest and authentic way that the author related her experience as a disabled young person.”

At the assembly, Mavrides-Calderón asked Heumann if she thought the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was in danger, she said. Heumann answered that the ADA was in danger, and explained what young activists needed to do to protect the legislation. “That really empowered me to continue to fight,” she said. “Hearing her answer my question and explain the next steps really gave me momentum.”