30 years of the ADA

Activist Judy Heumann draws far-reaching audience
to KU celebration of the disability rights movement

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More than 2,000 attendees from 41 states, the Netherlands and Scotland participated via Zoom when KU welcomed internationally recognized disability rights activist Judith Heumann to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Heumann and other guests shared their insights during five panel discussions on topics that included the origins and current status of the disability rights movement, the challenges faced by disabled artists and the importance of understanding intersectionality in the realm of disability rights. 

“For me, the KU event was different from others I’ve done because it was so well planned,” Heumann said, noting that Catherine Johnson, director of the KU ADA Resource Center for Equity and Accessibility, which hosted the event, had communicated with her for more than a year to prepare for the Oct. 28-29 conference, which also highlighted National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

Online only | Judy Heumann
Judy Heumann was the featured guest for the conference. Publishers Weekly named her memoir among the Best Books of 2020. | Photograph by Rick Guidotti

“And people need to remember too that these events are important because people are going to be graduating from universities and going into their various fields,” Heumann added. “You need to note that the student populations should be reflective of the groups they’ll be working, serving, with in the future. The faculty, staff and students should all be reflective—and that the value of that is you get to have a better understanding of people of different vantage points so that one can more effectively lead.”

Johnson says the original concept for the event was “to bring Judy here and through Judy to make change,” but the pandemic had other plans. “We had to decide whether to cancel or allow the event to morph into something that, ultimately, I think led to a better experience for everyone involved and had a much broader reach,” she says. “And, for KU, I really feel like, for two days, we were the center of the disability rights activist world.”

Through her 50-year career, Heumann worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations and the World Bank. She also was named a Ford Foundation Fellow. Her book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, with co-author Kristen Joiner, was published in February.   

Through her 50-year career, Heumann worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations and the World Bank. She also was named a Ford Foundation Fellow. Her book, Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, with co-author Kristen Joiner, was published in February.  

The KU conference also included Wesley Hamilton, a Kansas City-area activist recently featured on Netflix’s “Queer Eye”; Rebekah Taussig, author of the acclaimed new book Sitting Pretty; and Dior Vargas, author of “The Color of My Mind,” a photo essay based on his popular online photo series, “People Of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” launched in September 2014.

“For me, this conference was just awesome because of the conversations themselves and how many people wanted to understand and be aware this time,” Hamilton says. “It didn’t feel like people were just going to get their certification or credit; it seemed like more people were engaged and were ready to learn about things they have avoided for so long.” 

Hamilton was shot years ago and suffered a spinal cord injury. As he began a new life as a wheelchair user and single father, he turned to fitness and nutrition to find strength and overcome depression. Eventually, he became an adaptive bodybuilder and successful competitor and he founded a philanthropic organization, Disabled But Not Really.

Author Rebekah Taussig, who has earned praise for her new book, gave birth to her son and shepherded her husband through a fight with cancer this year. Dior Vargas’ entire family has been directly affected by COVID-19, and the president’s executive order pushing back against diversity education has cost her speaking engagements. She says the experience of sharing a panel with Heumann, an early hero who helped her get her start, will stay with her indefinitely.

Perhaps it is fitting that even the challenge of the pandemic did not deter conference planners.  In the end, thanks to Zoom (an event sponsor, no less), and the magic of recording software, these empowering speakers and their memorable discussions have been preserved for posterity. You can view them by visiting the main event site and clicking through or going directly to the schedule page. Links appear under each event description. Johnson and the entire project team (and their 62 sponsors) hope you enjoy the recordings and share them with your networks. 

And they hope, when someday Heumann can visit KU in person, you’ll join in that celebration as well. 

Eason is communications coordinator for the Office of the Provost. 

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