Judy Heumann, world-renowned disability activist, was seated in the foyer of the apartment she shares with her husband when she spoke to Cal Poly students via Zoom webinar on May 10. She wore a purple t-shirt, red glasses and made sure to point out that she’d applied lipstick for the occasion as she gave a visual description of herself to the audience.

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 Barack 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.

“I have spent my life in the area of advocacy and it certainly wasn’t something that I was preordained to do,” Heumann said during the webinar. “I think just like many women were not preordained to be feminists, but you become feminists and activists because of the way you’re treated in society.”

The webinar ran from 5-6 p.m. and was facilitated by ASI Secretary of Accessibility Regina Hockert, faculty from the Disability Resource Center (DRC) and members of the Disability Alliance. The Disability Alliance is a student-run club focused on issues of accessibility on Cal Poly’s campus and creating a community for students with disabilities.

During the webinar, Heumann spoke about her experience as an activist and gave advice to students looking to follow a similar path. In an interview with Mustang News, Heumann gave her thoughts on the webinar, and the importance of events like it.

Judy Heumann at the 504 protests in the 70s. Regina Hockert | Courtesy

Heumann said she prefers the webinar format instead of lectures, as she likes to be able to engage with her audience. During the webinar, each question became a conversation as she responded with questions of her own.

“I really like to be able to see the audience,” Heumann said. “You get an idea of how people are responding, and that’s really important.”

She spoke to the students about the importance of holding the university accountable and gave advice on how to do that. For example, she suggested adding a question about accessibility to the course evaluations students fill out at the end of each quarter. She explained that looking at coursework and policy through a disability lens is instrumental in creating an accessible campus.

“When looking at making public policy, are issues like this ever looked at with a disability lens?” Heumann asked. “The more disabled people that become faculty, the more faculty who understand disability as an intrinsic part of much of the teaching and learning that’s going on.”

Hockert said that the way Heumann made an effort to learn about the structures of Cal Poly specifically in order to give them guidance in their activism was inspiring. 

“She put us into a mode to be critically thinking, to be challenged and to be assessing the barriers that we currently face and thinking about them in new ways,” Hockert said. “That was absolutely incredible.”

Hockert, along with members of the Disability Alliance club, had the idea for the event and worked for months to make it possible. She said that having Heumann come speak at Cal Poly served as a symbol for her, and the people around her that helped to make it possible, that their efforts have not been for nothing.

“To see all of my hard work, and all the hard work of everyone else around me culminate in this way is incredibly powerful,” Hockert said.” “It helps to refuel me to keep tackling issues in front of us as we go, but it’s nice to take a moment to celebrate and appreciate how far we have come.”

There are a number of other people and activists that Hockert said she’d love to see come to Cal Poly, and she plans to continue to work to make events like the webinar with Heumann possible in the future.

“There are still a ton of issues with accessibility, but seeing action steps and people coming and speaking on disability and bringing awareness to this is really important and wonderful,” Hockert said. “I’m excited to see where it goes next and how we can continue to make Cal Poly a more accessible and inclusive space for everyone.”