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Disability in the Mainstream: Bank Appoints Prominent New Disability Adviser

June 3, 2002—Judith Heumann’s experiences have profoundly shaped her life and galvanized her work over the years to fight for the civil and human rights of disabled people from diverse communities around the world. She joins the Bank today as the new Adviser, Disability and Development. This position is located in the Social Protection unit of the Human Development Vice Presidency but will be serving the Bank-wide community. Heumann will lead the World Bank’s work on disability and integrate it into country dialogue with its client countries, its country-based analytical work, and its support for policies, programs, and projects that allow people with disabilities to live and work as valued citizens in national life. 

From 1993 to 2001, Heumann, served as Assistant Secretary to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the U.S. Department of Education, overseeing the Office of Special Education Programs, the Rehabilitation Services Administration, and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Her supervision of this office, its 370 employees and its annual operating budget of $10 billion, positively affected the lives of millions of disabled individuals, their families, professionals and researchers. 

Heumann, who contracted polio at the age of 18 months, uses a motorized wheelchair and personal assistants. “Disability is not a tragedy,” says Heumann, “but rather a normal part of life. It is a tragedy when disabled people are excluded from opportunities which would enable them to be part of the economic mainstream of society. Discrimination has denied hundreds of millions of disabled people around the world their right to receive education, health care, housing, transportation, and equal employment opportunities. I have committed my life to enabling disabled individuals and their families to have the same hopes and dreams as we have for nondisabled people. It is this vision that I bring to the Bank.  The inclusion of the needs of disabled people into the existing and future initiatives such as Education for All, our children and youth work, HIV/AIDS and other programs is critical to the Bank’s ability to fulfill its goal of eradicating poverty. I’m excited about coming to the Bank, and look forward to working on these issues and seeing positive results.”   

Heumann is quick to point out that she will not be advocating for stand-alone disability projects. “It’s all about being in the mainstream of society,” she explains, a conviction that developed from her own experiences of discrimination. As a child with a significant disability, she was classified by her local school district as ‘a fire hazard’ and barred from going to school. For three years, the district provided her home tutoring for two and a half hours a week. Her parents’ activism helped to get her into elementary school and an integrated high school. In 1969, she earned a B.A. in Speech and Theater, with a focus on Speech Pathology and Education. She was denied a teaching credential by the Board of Education of the City of New York because of her disability. She sued the Board of Education, was granted her license and taught elementary school for three years. Her personal fight against exclusion and prejudice has compelled her to work in collaboration with disabled individuals and others on behalf of the millions of children and adults in the U.S. and worldwide. 

A U.S. national, Heumann has traveled widely overseas, teaching and learning from disability groups everywhere. Her international activities have included co-chairing of the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities, which brought together 600 participants from 80 countries, and policy consultations with governmental and non-governmental agencies in Mexico, Brazil, Japan, China, and throughout Europe. This included attending the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in the mid-Nineties, where she was the only disabled member of the 42-strong American delegation. 

Heumann’s personal life also bears testimony to her global citizenry. Judy is married to Jorge Pineda, a disabled man from Mexico City whom she had met at a conference on international human rights. “It was a hard transition for my husband,” Heumann says, “once he had immigrated to the U.S. He faced discrimination both as a disabled person and also as a Latino. The early years in the U.S. were tough for him.”   

“Disabled people are no different from any other group around the world. With appropriate opportunities and supports, we are able to contribute to the economic and social well-being of their communities.”  Heumann says, “People can become disabled at any point of their life as a result of injuries from industry, landmines or rebel conflicts, or conditions such as HIV/AIDS, River Blindness, or malnourishment,” she says. “Poverty is a leading cause of disability. As a result, people with disabilities are disproportionately represented among the poor.”  

 “Bringing marginalized populations into the mainstream of developing countries is a vital step in reducing poverty and extending hope and a chance to thrive to people who may only have known discrimination and exclusion,” says World Bank President, James D. Wolfensohn. “All people in developing countries should have equal opportunities, and I’m delighted that we have chosen such a prominent disability champion as Judy Heumann to carry this agenda forward.”   

For Jo Ritzen, Vice President of Human Development, and Robert Holzmann, the HD Network’s Director of Social Protection, Judy Heumann’s appointment will allow their department to tackle disability issues with a new vigor and strong endorsement from the international disability community which has saluted the Bank for the appointment of a disability adviser.    

Since the 1970s, Judy Heumann’s work with governments and NGOs has produced substantial contributions to the development of human rights legislation and policies benefiting disabled infants, children, youth and adults, and to the worldwide development of the self-help and Independent Living Movement. She co-founded the World Institute on Disability, the first public policy research think tank devoted to disability issues. She also shaped and co-directed the nation’s first Center on Independent Living in Berkeley, California, a self-help and human rights organization, and managed her own consulting firm which provides consulting services on disability issues. These efforts helped to spawn Independent Living Centers around world through the mentoring and training of international representatives of disabled people. 

For more on the World Bank’s development work on disability issues, please click here.




Judy Heumann, new Adviser, Disability and Development in the Human Development Network



Judy Heumann with the HD Network’s Director of Social Protection Social Protection, Robert Holzmann















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