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May 2006

by J. Elizabeth Strohm

February 9, 2006 – University of Pennsylvania News - Judith Heumann used to be classified as a fire hazard.

"I learned that discrimination was unfortunately a natural part of life in the United States and, as I would learn later, in the world," Heumann said.

Heumann, who has been disabled since she contracted polio in 1949, visited Pitt yesterday as the 2006 keynote speaker for the Thornburgh family lecture series on disability law and policy. Her speech attracted an audience of more than 150 people, a disproportionate number of them with disabilities, to the Barco Law Building’s Teplitz Courtroom.

Heumann, who serves as the World Bank’s first adviser on disability and development, discussed her own history battling barriers faced by disabled people, as well as the development of disability laws in the United States and the future of disability issues in the nation and the world.

There are 54 million people with disabilities in the United States and half a billion in the world, according to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who joined former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh in introducing the topic and speaker.

"Eliminating obstacles ought to be a national and international priority," Nordenberg said.

Pity, fear and lack of knowledge create barriers for people with disabilities, Heumann said.

"The physical barriers may be coming down, but attitudes change very slowly," she said, explaining that attitudes and acts of discrimination are the biggest problems facing people with disabilities.

Heumann said that no amount of money could remove the obstacles created by biases.

Early experiences provided Heumann with powerful lessons about many people’s attitudes toward disabilities. She was denied admission to school because she could not climb the building’s steps, even though her mother offered to assist her each day.

Public facilities were not accessible for people with disabilities when Heumann was young, and although many organizations sponsored research toward cures for disabling diseases, few fought to remove barriers — and few thought to include people with disabilities in waging the fight, she said.

One group that did manage to find a voice early on was composed of disabled World War II veterans. Their efforts brought about the first state legislation to make new buildings and sidewalks accessible to people with disabilities.

Heumann began taking major steps toward rights for people with disabilities in college; she organized rallies and protests with other students with disabilities. When Heumann got out of school and was denied her New York teaching license because the board did not believe she could get herself or her students out of the building in case of a fire, she took the case to court.

After the judge suggested that New York City’s Board of Education rethink its decision, Heumann became the first person in a wheelchair to teach in New York City.

On her first trip out of the United States, Heumann attended the Paralympic Games as a spectator in Heidelberg, Germany. Meeting people with disabilities from other countries for the first time, Heumann said she realized that people in every country had to deal with many of the same challenges.

"It was very exciting to see how our visions were the same," she said, adding that people from wealthier nations had better technology and opportunities but that "we all faced the same barriers."

At her current position, Heumann works to introduce disability issues into the World Bank’s many international programs.

"Disability has to be part of every development discussion," Heumann said.

For example, less than 10 percent of disabled children around the world attend school, Heumann said.

"Too many people in the United States remain uninformed about the problems and challenges faced by the more than 400 million people with disabilities living in developing countries," she added.

Heumann emphasized the importance of applying a "disability lens" to every situation, so that everyone might better understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities.

"We’re integrating disabled people into the fabric of everything that’s happening," Heumann said.

Heumann described disabilities as a factor to incorporate into decisions, and not as a problem to solve.

"Many of the institutions really think about disabilities as something that will someday no longer exist," Heumann said

"We don’t see disability as a tragedy," she said, describing it instead as simply "something that will always exist, at least in our lifetime."

Judith E. Heumann was appointed as the World Bank's first Adviser on Disability and Development in June 2002. She is an internationally recognized expert on disability and diversity issues who has traveled widely among the countries of the world. Heumann leads the Bank's disability work that integrates the needs of people with disabilities in the Bank's discussions with client countries, its country-based analytical work and its support for policies, programs and projects to improve economic and social life around the globe. Heumann, a life-time human rights advocate, has been the recipient of many awards including two honorary doctorates and the first Henry B. Betts award. She was also the founder of Disabled In Action in 1970.