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The Story of Ms. Heuman: Polio’s Challenges
As part of my job, I try to keep up with medicine. Reading about medicine doesn’t make me a doctor. I am only a lawyer and not trained to give such advice. Unfortunately, many Administrative Law Judges seem to think that by reading through the medical evidence, they somehow have acquired superior knowledge over a doctor who completed medical school, three years of residency and often a fellowship before going into practice.
Discovering Ms. Heumann Through Medical Journals
One thing you gain from reading medical journals is that you hear about some interesting people that otherwise you might never have heard of. I was reading a recent edition of The Lancet, a British publication similar to the New England Journal of Medicine and the AMA Journal. They sometimes publish obituaries on famous people in the medical world, and I happened to read about Judith Heumann who passed at age 75 earlier this year. Judith Heumann wasn’t a doctor but someone who was very active in the disability world.
Polio’s Lasting Impact and Courageous Advocacy
According to the obit, Ms. Heumann contracted polio when she was 18 and was in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. When she was born, there was no vaccine for polio. People would contract polio and often become permanently disabled or die prematurely. They might recover only to develop what is now referred to as post-polio syndrome in their 60s and 70s. The virus stays inside you and like shingles, somehow becomes active again. I find it frightening with the anti-vax movement that people are now afraid to get their polio shots which could mean that a disease that would be completely wiped out in the United States may come back, destroying lives needlessly.
In any event, the Lancet tells the story that when Ms. Heumann was 5 years old, she was denied from being enrolled in kindergarten because she would be a hazard in case of a fire. After graduating from college, she was denied a teaching license because she was in a wheelchair. Having grown up in the New York City public schools, I can assure you that the buildings do not have elevators and everyone has to use stairs no matter what borough you are born in. Nevertheless, she did get her teaching license and after bringing a lawsuit, she became a teacher.
Leading the Charge for Disability Rights
She then became active in litigation when then President Nixon blocked the initial Rehabilitation Act which included barring discrimination against disabled people by any institution receiving federal money. After organizing a sit-in for nearly 4 weeks, Congress finally passed the legislation and it became law. Not surprisingly, Ms. Heumann stayed active in the disability world. She was appointed by President Clinton as an Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services in the Department of Education where she implemented national programs in special education and independent living. She had another role as a special advisor for President Obama.
What an extraordinary story! It just shows that people can accomplish great things in spite of their handicaps. Her story should be an inspiration to all of us. If you would like a copy of the article, it is from The Lancet, April 8, 2023.