Paralyzed by polio when she was 18 months old, disability rights activist Judith Heumann never wished she didn’t have a disability.
“My life has been as a disabled person. I’ve never really wanted to think about my life as being anything but who I am,” Heumann told more than 800 students, faculty, staff and greater New London residents at this year’s One Book One Region signature event at Connecticut College on Sept. 22.
Instead, she focused on what she could change.
“For me, it’s about ‘What do we need to be changing in society? Why has society been constructed in such a way as to negate the contributions of people who have various forms of disabilities?’” she said.
“It’s about asking what we need to do to ensure that people are included and not setting something up where our big wish and hope is ‘cure me.’”
Heumann’s memoir, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, was the 2022 selection for One Book One Region, in which first-year Conn students do a shared summer reading with faculty, staff, advisers and hundreds of community members from southeastern Connecticut.
The book offers a firsthand account of the disability rights movement of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. As a child, Heumann fought to attend grade school after being described as a “fire hazard,” and later won a lawsuit against the New York City school system for denying her a teacher’s license because of her paralysis, which set a precedent that fundamentally improved rights for disabled people. A lifelong activist, Heumann has been instrumental in the development and implementation of key legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The event, which marked the 20th anniversary of One Book One Region of Eastern Connecticut, featured a wide-ranging discussion between Heumann and Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Rudolph, a specialist in Latin American studies and disability studies. Earlier in the day, Heumann met with students in Rudolph’s “Disability and Society” class and in Professor Alison Wetmur’s “Disability Justice” first-year seminar.
Maeve Bettencourt ’26 said meeting Heumann gave her further insight into the issues she and her classmates have been studying.
“Her answers were really thoughtful, and it just drilled home the point that while we have come a long way, there is still so much work to do,” Bettencourt said.
Heumann said the key to progress is collaboration.
“It’s not one person that makes change,” she said. “We need to all be thinking about what we need to do within our communities.”