This spring, the world of disability rights was changed forever by the passing of activist, Judy Heumann, on March 4, 2023. Ms. Heumann not only fought for an inclusive education and employment in her personal life, she leveraged her own experience to lead peaceful protests to expand the civil rights of people with disabilities in the United States.
Section 504 Sit- In
Ms. Heumann was a major force in getting the U.S. government to issue regulations that would implement Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the first U.S. law to make it unlawful to discriminate against a person with a disability solely because of their disability. The Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973. However, Joseph Califano, the U.S Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare refused to sign the implementing regulations, claiming that implementing the law would be too expensive. By 1977, four years after the law was passed, Mr. Califano was still refusing to sign the regulations that would allow the law to be enforced.
Activists with disabilities from around the country decided to make their voices heard. In April, 1977, activists with disabilities staged sit-ins at ten HEW offices around the country. The largest of these protests, in San Francisco, was led by Judy Heumann. Around 125-150 people, most with significant disabilities sat in the San Francisco office of HEW for 28 days. On April 28, 1977, Joseph Califano signed the regulations both for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, creating, for the first time, a civil right for people with disabilities to receive a mainstreamed education and have access employment, government, and public spaces.
Ms. Heumann went on to co-found the World Institute on Disability, serve as Director of the Department of Disability Services for the city of Washington, DC., serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services at the U.S. Department of Education, work as an advisor to the World Bank and the U.S. State Department, and work as a Senior Fellow at the Ford Foundation. Ms. Heumann published a book, Being Huemann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist, in February 2020. Learn more about the life of Judy Huemann on her website: https://judithheumann.com//.
Perez v. Sturgis: An Expansion of Disability Rights in Education
On March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision that significantly increases the rights of students with disabilities to receive an inclusive education. In Perez v. Sturgis, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a former student may seek remedies for past discrimination in a school setting under the Americans with Disabilities Act without exhausting the administrative appeal process under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Perez involved a student, Miguel Perez, who was provided with classroom aides throughout his elementary and high school education who were meant to provide American Sign Language interpretation for him. However, many of these aids did not know ASL, did not know it well, or were absent for much of the school year. Perez also received inflated grades where the school misrepresented what he had learned. Based on those grades, Perez’s parents thought he was on track to graduate with a diploma until, months prior to graduation, the school told them they would not award him a diploma.
Perez’s parents filed an administrative complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, which settled. After that, they filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act seeking compensatory damages for all the years that the school district refused to accommodate Perez. The case was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 21, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Perez did not need to exhaust the administrative appeals process under the IDEA to seek remedies under the ADA.
What does this mean?
This case makes it much easier for students to get monetary damages from school districts that fail to accommodate them or provide them with an inclusive education. This is the first appellate level case where a plaintiff has tried to seek relief once his education is completed for a school district’s failing to accommodate him during his education. One barrier to seeking relief has been that any claim brought under the IDEA must first be heard before the Department of Education before it can be heard in a court of law. That process can take a very long time, even years. In this case, the Supreme Court has decided that a student seeking monetary damages, which are not available under the IDEA, can go straight to court with a claim under the ADA.