World Bank champion of disabled hopes to raise awareness, fight stigma

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Judith Heumann believes the most important thing she can do in her job is raise awareness of who the disabled are and how they, like any minority, can work and contribute to society.

Appointed in June as the World Bank’s first adviser for disability and development, Heumann was recently in Japan to speak at several symposiums rounding out the last year of the Asian and Pacific Decade of Persons with Disabilities.

“Currently, there are at least 400 million disabled people living in developing nations, many of whom are in poverty, denied human rights and rights as citizens,” she said in a recent interview. “(There is a) stigma and ignorance, where families try to hide the handicaps, aggravating the situation and hiding the problems from society.”

Heumann said she is determined to address this issue directly through the World Bank by working with governments, nongovernmental organizations, donors and lenders. The World Bank has said it believes that improving the environment surrounding the disabled in poor nations will serve to reduce poverty and spur development.

Heumann contracted polio when she was 18 months old. She said she soon realized the world is a place of discrimination.

She said she was not allowed to go to public school until she was in the fourth grade, because she was told she would be “a fire hazard” in her wheelchair.

After graduating from Long Island University in 1969 and the University of California at Berkeley in 1975, Heumann aimed to become a teacher but was rejected until she sued the New York City Board of Education for discrimination.

Such experiences motivated her to work for the rights of people with disabilities, she said.

Having cofounded several organizations, including the World Institute on Disability, she served in the administration of President Bill Clinton as assistant secretary of education for the office of special education and rehabilitative services, helping develop legislation that became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As deputy director of the first independent living center in California and cofounder of the World Institute on Disability, she became widely known in the United States as the “mother of the independent-living movement.”

It was while running a consulting business for implementing public policies that affect the disabled that she was appointed to her new post at the World Bank.

“What I’m trying to do is help people recognize that this (disabled) population is large and that something has to be done about them, like we have been doing with gender issues,” Heumann said. “I have learned that barriers can be removed, and that they can be removed more easily if not just one person is trying to remove them.”