It started as a dream for kinesiology junior Regina Hockert. She and the other members of the Disability Alliance — a student-run club focused on issues of accessibility on Cal Poly’s campus — were discussing potential disability rights activists to invite to speak to students. The name Judy Heumann floated around, but none of them ever thought it would be possible to actually bring her to campus.
“Judy Heumann is an incredible disability advocate, who has been an activist for longer than I’ve been alive,” Hockert said.
Their doubts would soon prove unnecessary.
Heumann will be speaking to Cal Poly students via Zoom Webinar at 5 p.m. on May 10. Students can register for the event via Associated Students, Inc. (ASI).
Heumann is an internationally recognized leader in the 1970s disability rights movement in the United States. She served under the Clinton administration as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education. She was appointed by president Obama in 2010 as the Special Advisor for International Disability Rights at the U.S. Department of State where she served until 2017.
She also took part in the historic 504 Sit-In in 1977, the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building in the history of the United States. Protestors demanded the implementation and enforcement of section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability.
“Everyone in the disability community who has ties to disability history has at least some sort of understanding of who Judy Heumann is,” Hockert said.
Bringing her to Cal Poly was made possible through Hockert’s role as the ASI Secretary of Accessibility — a position created in May of 2021 by the Disability Alliance. Hockert said that the views she expresses in this article are her own and do not reflect that of ASI.
The Disability Alliance is a student-run club formed in January 2021, and officially chartered last quarter. They have 21 members who are focused on forming a community for disabled students on campus. They focus on issues of inaccessibility and inclusion.
The Secretary of Accessibility position was created in order to fulfill a need within ASI for someone whose role is to focus on issues of accessibility, according to communications junior M.W. Kaplan, the president of the Disability Alliance.
“There wasn’t a position within ASI that focused on accessibility,” Kaplan said. “So it wasn’t necessarily within anyone’s purview to work on that. It would have been secondary to whatever their main job was.”
They explained that the process of creating the position took months, and took a lot of advocating and hard work by the members of the Disability Alliance.
“It was a really long process because enough people in ASI didn’t think it was necessary and weren’t interested in adding it as a position,” Kaplan said. “What I worked on was mostly campaigning and garnering public support.”
Once the position was officially approved, Hockert stepped into the role. She said she’s now able to request funding and approval for events and activities, such as the Heumann webinar.
“Coming in as a freshman, I never would have thought that this could even be possible,” Hockert said. “The fact that through the hard work from such incredible disability activists on campus that [the webinar with Heumann] has even been made possible is a little mind blowing to me.”
The webinar will be facilitated by Hockert and Kaplan, along with a few other members of the Disability Alliance, as well as facilitators from the Disability Resource Center. They’ve gathered questions that disabled students on campus have for Heumann, and then a Q&A will be held where students will be able to ask additional questions.
In bringing Heumann to Cal Poly, Hockert said she hopes to send a message.
“People with disabilities are here. We are important, and we can do incredible things,” Hockert said. “The activism work that we are doing has meaning and it has impact, and it can make the lives of other people with disabilities better.”
For non-disabled students who attend the event, Hockert said she hopes that it will give them a brief insight into the types of things disabled people face on a daily basis. She also said she hopes that it will inspire them to practice disability activism in their own lives.
“There’s often a sense of abled people not wanting to do things wrong, so they’re not doing things at all,” Hockert said. “That’s really a barrier that I hope that this event helps break down.”
Dr. Nicole Jacobs is a lecturer in the English department at Cal Poly, as well as the faculty adviser for the Disability Alliance. She said that the students have been doing a “phenomenal” job with the activism and change they’ve made so far.
“I am so impressed with not just their knowledge of disability rights, but the way they’re honoring disability history and the kind of heritage that we have,” Jacobs said.
As for what’s next for the Disability Alliance, they will be holding a panel on May 16th for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. It will be focused on Cal Poly student and faculty experiences with assistive technology and digital accessibility.
In the meantime, the Disability Alliance is preparing for the webinar with Heumann on Tuesday. Hockert said that all of the members are looking forward to the event.
“[Heumann] has done so many incredible things that have concretely changed the lives of people with disabilities for the better,” Hockert said. “Having her come and be able to share her wisdom, share her experience and talk to us is really this beacon of hope.”