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  • I was born in 1947, a long time ago,

  • and when I was 18 months old, I had polio.

  • I was in an iron lung for three months

  • and in and out of the hospital for three years.

  • Now, we had lots of neighbors in our Brooklyn neighborhood,

  • and some of them were really very helpful for my parents.

  • Some of them were really afraid of contagion,

  • and they wouldn't even walk in front of our house.

  • They would literally walk across the street.

  • I think this was a time when my family really began to realize

  • what disability meant to some people:

  • fear.

  • And it wasn't even a sure thing that I would live at home,

  • although I didn't learn about this until I was 36 years old.

  • I was having a discussion with my father one night,

  • and he said, "You know, when you were two years old,

  • one of the doctors suggested to your mom and I

  • that you live in an institution,

  • that they could just go ahead with their lives

  • and raise their kids

  • and kind of be done with having to deal with all the disability-related things.

  • I didn't believe my father, not because he was a liar,

  • but I'd never heard this story,

  • and my mother in fact validated that.

  • She never wanted to tell me.

  • But in reality, I don't know why I was really surprised by this story,

  • because when I was five years old,

  • and my mother, like mothers and fathers all across the United States,

  • was taking me to school to enroll,

  • she pushed my wheelchair to the school in walking distance to our house,

  • pulled the wheelchair up the steps into the school,

  • and we were greeted by the principal.

  • Not really greeted.

  • But the principal said, no, I couldn't come to that school

  • because it wasn't accessible.

  • But he told us not to worry,

  • because the Board of Education in fact would send a teacher to my house.

  • And they did

  • for a total of two and a half hours

  • a week.

  • (Audience murmurs)

  • But for good behavior,

  • they threw in an occupational therapist

  • who taught me that very essential skill

  • of cross-stitching.

  • (Laughter)

  • I don't cross-stitch today.

  • (Laughter)

  • I didn't actually get to go to school in a real building

  • until I was nine years old,

  • and then I was in classes only with disabled children

  • in a school that had mainly nondisabled children.

  • And in my classes,

  • there were students up to the age of 21.

  • And then, after 21,

  • they went to something called sheltered workshops

  • with menial work

  • and earning either nothing or below minimum wage.

  • So I understood discrimination.

  • My parents understood discrimination.

  • My parents came from Germany.

  • They were German Jews who left in the 1930s,

  • escaping the Holocaust.

  • My parents lost family and they lost parents.

  • Both my parents lost their parents in the Holocaust.

  • And so they realized

  • that they could not be silent

  • as things were going wrong for me in my life.

  • Not me personally,

  • but what was going on around me.

  • They learned that because I used a wheelchair,

  • none of the high schools in New York City, in the entire city,

  • were wheelchair accessible,

  • so what was supposed to happen

  • is I was supposed to go back onto home instruction

  • along with many other students.

  • So my parents banded together with other parents.

  • They went to the Board of Education

  • and they demanded that the Board of Ed make some of the high schools accessible.

  • And they did.

  • And so I and many others

  • were finally able to go to high school, a regular high school,

  • and take regular classes.

  • So what happened next?

  • I was learning more and more about what discrimination was,

  • and equally important, I was learning that I needed to become my own advocate.

  • I was entering college, Long Island University,

  • and I had always wanted to be a teacher,

  • and so I minored in education and I took all the appropriate courses,

  • and then when it was time for me to go for my license,

  • I had to take a written exam,

  • an oral exam

  • and a medical exam.

  • At that time, all three of those exams

  • were given in completely inaccessible buildings,

  • so I had friends who carried me up and down the steps

  • for these exams,

  • not in a motorized wheelchair.

  • (Laughter)

  • In a manual wheelchair.

  • But I passed my oral exam.

  • I passed my written exam.

  • My medical exam was something completely different.

  • One of the first questions the doctor asked me

  • was, could I please show her how I went to the bathroom.

  • I was 22 years old

  • and you know when you go for any kind of an interview,

  • you think about all the kinds of questions that people could ask you?

  • (Laughter)

  • That was not one of them.

  • And I was freaked out in the first place

  • because I had heard

  • that there were actually no disabled people using wheelchairs

  • who were teachers in New York,

  • so each step along the way I was expecting something bad.

  • So I said to her,

  • is it a requirement that teachers show their students

  • how to go to the bathroom?

  • If it is, I can do that.

  • So no surprise,

  • I was failed

  • because I didn't pass the medical.

  • The official reason that I was denied my job

  • was paralysis of poliomyelitis sequelae of -- I'm sorry.

  • Paralysis of both lower limbs, sequelae of poliomyelitis.

  • Honestly, I didn't know what the word "sequelae" meant,

  • so I went to the dictionary, and it meant "because of."

  • So I'd been denied my license because I couldn't walk.

  • So what was I going to do?

  • This is a really important time in my life,

  • because it would be the first time

  • that I really would be challenging the system, me,

  • and although I was working with a lot of other friends who had disabilities

  • who were encouraging me to move forward with this,

  • it was nonetheless quite frightening.

  • But I was really very lucky.

  • I had a friend who was a disabled student at Long Island University

  • and was also a stringer at the "New York Times,"

  • and he was able to get a reporter

  • to write a really good piece about what had happened

  • and why he thought what had happened was wrong.

  • The next day there was an editorial in the "New York Times"

  • with the title of "Heumann v. The Board of Education"

  • and the "New York Times" came out in support

  • of my getting my teaching license.

  • (Applause)

  • And then the same day,

  • I got a call from an attorney who was writing a book about civil rights.

  • And he was calling me to interview me,

  • and I was interviewing him.

  • He didn't know that.

  • And at the end of our discussion, I said,

  • "Would you be willing to represent me? I want to sue the Board of Education."

  • And he said yes.

  • Now, sometimes I say that the stars were aligned around this court case,

  • because we had an amazing judge:

  • the first African American female federal judge --

  • (Laughter)

  • Constance Baker Motley.

  • (Applause)

  • And she knew discrimination when she saw it.

  • (Laughter)

  • So she strongly encouraged the Board of Ed

  • to give me another medical exam,

  • which they did.

  • And then I got my license,

  • and while it took a number of months

  • for me to actually get a principal to offer me a job,

  • I finally did get a job and I started teaching that fall

  • in the same school that I had gone to,

  • second grade.

  • So --

  • (Applause)

  • That's a whole other TED Talk.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I was learning as my friends were,

  • and people I didn't know around the country,

  • that we had to be our own advocates,

  • that we needed to fight back people's view

  • that if you had a disability, you needed to be cured,

  • that equality was not part of the equation.

  • And we were learning from the Civil Rights Movement

  • and from the Women's Rights Movement.

  • We were learning from them about their activism

  • and their ability to come together,

  • not only to discuss problems

  • but to discuss solutions.

  • And what was born is what we call today the Disability Rights Movement.

  • So I'd like to tell you a couple of riddles.

  • How many people do you think it takes

  • to stop traffic on Madison Avenue

  • during rush hour in New York City?

  • Do you have a guess? How many?

  • (Audience members shout out answers)

  • Fifty.

  • One would be too little.

  • Fifty people.

  • And there were no accessible paddy wagons,

  • so they had to just kind of deal with us.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • But let me tell you another riddle.

  • How many people does it take to stop a bus in New York City

  • when they refuse to let you on because you're in a wheelchair?

  • One. That is the right answer.

  • So what you have to do though

  • is take your wheelchair --

  • (Laughter)

  • Sidle in the right place right in front of the steps

  • and give it a little push underneath,

  • and then their bus can't move.

  • (Laughter)

  • Any of you who want to learn how to do that,

  • talk to me after this.

  • (Laughter)

  • In 1972, President Nixon vetoed the Rehabilitation Act.

  • We protested. He signed it.

  • Then the regulations that needed to be promulgated to implement that law

  • had not in fact been signed.

  • We demonstrated. They were signed.

  • And when the Americans With Disabilities Act, the ADA,

  • our Emancipation Proclamation Act,

  • looked as though it might not in fact be passed in the House or Senate,

  • disabled people from all across the United States came together

  • and they crawled up the Capitol steps.

  • That was an amazing day,

  • and the House and Senate passed the ADA.

  • And then President Bush signed the ADA.

  • It's a great picture.

  • President Bush signed the ADA on the lawn of the White House.

  • It was an amazing day,

  • and there are about 2,000 people there.

  • It was July 26, 1990.

  • And one of the most famous statements he had in his speech

  • was, "Let the shameful walls of exclusion finally come tumbling down."

  • For any of you in the room

  • who are 50 or older, or maybe or even 40 or older,

  • you remember a time when there were no ramps on the streets,

  • when buses were not accessible,

  • when trains were not accessible,

  • where there were no wheelchair-accessible bathrooms in shopping malls,

  • where you certainly did not have a sign language interpreter,

  • or captioning, or braille or other kinds of supports.

  • These things have changed,

  • and they have inspired the world.

  • And disabled people around the world want laws like we have,

  • and they want those laws enforced.

  • And so what we've seen is something called

  • the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

  • It is a treaty that was adopted in 2006.

  • It's celebrating is 10-year anniversary.

  • More than 165 countries have joined this treaty.