Where Do Our Heroes Go When They Leave This World: They Live on In the Revolution

Where Do Our Heroes Go When They Leave This World: They Live on In the Revolution

Most people grow up being inspired by a person who has defied all odds and achieved a level of such greatness that their in-person presence appears to transcend another level of human status- that makes them seem unattainable or unapproachable. A “hero” is a person who embodies distinguishable qualities that exceed standard human levels by exhibiting an amount of courage and admiration that sets them apart from others. The word “hero” often prompts images of masked, muscular individuals flying in capes to rescue a person in distress. This past week, the international community was reminded that heroes do indeed leave this world, but their legacy lives on in the omnipresence of the revolution.

Judith Heumann, or “Judy” as everyone knew her, refused to accept her disability as a barrier to accessing equitable opportunities to participate fully in society. The public knew Judy as the “mother” of the disability rights movement, and a fierce civil rights and disability rights advocate, paving the path for Section 504, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. While her achievements didn’t start or end with shifting American legislation and policies, she went on to start global disability rights organizations, and serving under President Clinton and President Obama administrations. Judy’s celebrityness never stood in the way of balancing out the other vital roles she played in her life and in the lives of others: sister, best friend, mentor, and “mother.” No matter how intimately you knew Judy or the details of her life, she made sure to create a “space” for you in her interactions. Judy was intentional about making herself accessible and was often seen on her phone texting or calling to check-in on others. She was genuinely interested in hearing about the other person in the conversation, wanting to know about their kids and how they were doing on a fundamental level.

The world lost a hero, Judy Huemann, on March 4th, 2023, but gained a global shared community in continuing her legacy and revolution. Her memorial services were held at her synagogue, Adas Israel Congregation, in Washington DC on a brisk, sunny day on March 8th, 2023. The entire service was live-streamed, close captioned, and ASL interpreted on large screens-all carefully coordinated and communicated to attendees to ensure equitable access to the shared experience.

The service started out with, “Ma Tovu” a Jewish prayer often sung in synagogues to set the tone for coming together as a community in shared prayer and reflection. It wasn’t until Psalm 23 was read, or sung, I don’t fully remember, because it was that moment that many others and I started to feel the weight and reality of our collective loss. The feelings of hurt, sadness, and in some ways a selfish feeling of “who will put up a tenacious fight with us?” The eulogies written and read by friends, family, and colleagues all captured Judy’s essence perfectly- like her routine sharing a late evening text with Ann Cody before going to sleep, or how a month after she was born she knew how to operate a phone, shared by her brother, Rick-a comedic moment and nod to Judy’s love for calling others and making herself available while simultaneously putting others on hold. Bob Williams, a longtime colleague and friend of Judy’s, shared a quote by a grieving man captured by a reporter after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in March 1945. Williams shared the man’s quote by saying “FDR was a friend of mine. We never met, but he knew me.” This quote beautifully captured the collective feeling so many of us felt around the globe. Heartfelt tributes by President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, and President Joe Biden were read by Eduardo Castillo and Denise Figueroa. Colleen Kelly Starkloff’s warm reflections about her friendship with Judy and a deep sisterhood they shared was a familiar story that traveled from the podium to the seats in the sanctuary.

One common theme that resonated throughout the stories and anecdotes shared by colleagues, friends, and family was that Judy made time for everyone-whether a late-night text before going to bed, rating the comedic nature of a shared TikTok video, or a picture of a child. Judy was friends, “sister,” and “mother” to everyone. She didn’t let her celebrity status or accomplishments become a barrier to accessing her. Her desire to create a more inclusive world didn’t stop at the policies she fought so hard for- her desire for a human revolution was observed in her everyday actions and the encounters she had with people. While we lost Judy’s human presence here in this world, we gain a greater community devoted to an inclusive, accessible revolution that can be observed in the changes we see in policies, and practice-but more importantly in our everyday interactions with others. Judy’s niece, Kristin Heumann, highlighted how coincidental it was that Judy passed away on March 4th, as if to tell us all, we “march” or roll forth in the revolution.

Natali Wachtman Perilo
Ph.D., People Analyst/ Organizational Behavior/ Disability Rights Activist/ Fight for Right Program Manager for Emergency, Disaster, and Climate Resilience at World Institute on Disability special for Fight For Right

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