The memorial service honoring the life of Judy Heumann, legendary disability rights activist, will be livestreamed Wednesday, March 8 at 10 a.m. ET (7 a.m. PT).
Nora Genster, senior director of the Employment Transformation Collective at Northwest Center, shares her own remembrance of Judy as a mentor and friend:
Judy Heumann was a titan of activism and a friend. In addition to her legacy as an activist, she also served as an incomparable mentor to the next generations of disability rights leaders. I have been struck by the number of my friends and colleagues who have been able to share personal memories of Judy: of love, care, and concern for the future of disability rights, but also for the people making it happen.
I met Judy fresh out of college, when I was just beginning to understand my disabled identity. At the time, she was serving as Special Advisor on International Disability Rights for the U.S. State Department. I emailed her cold and said that if I ended up in her role in at some point in my career, it would have been a life well led.
Of course, at the time I did not know her background. It was only after I had met her in her Foggy Bottom office at the Department of State that I truly learned who she was. Humbled is an understatement.
Judy served as a personal mentor, offering guidance, motivation, comfort. I believe her greatest strength was her humanity. She refused to separate her person from her work. She demanded that, when senators and shop owners alike denied national rights or storefront accommodation, they look her in the eye and tell her that they were choosing to deny her, not some imagined disabled person. She was strength through vulnerability.
At a late 2019 award dinner in DC, she opened her remarks with, “I am going to cry, and you are going to deal with it.” I had and have not since seen myself so clearly in another leader.
What is, perhaps, troubling about her passing is that many, many of her talking points ring as true today as they did in the ’70s.
In the documentary Crip Camp, Judy shares:
“I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. If I have to be thankful for an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”
I still find myself being “thankful” for accessible toilets. For access. For basic accommodation. There is so much left to do.
I would not be where I am today without Judy. Many disability advocates would not be where they are. Indeed, the nation and the world have been marked for the better by Judy’s legacy. Her humanity, grit, humor, galvanizing ability and love for her people.
She demanded a better world for disabled people. I hope we can, this week, reflect on how we are answering that still urgent demand. What more can we ask of ourselves?
For my disabled colleagues, for whom work and life are often tangled, as they were for Judy: It is hard. That’s the truth. We can honor Judy’s legacy, and ourselves, by embracing that challenge, allowing vulnerability, caring for each other, and expecting our colleagues, disabled and not, to value and uplift that humanity as central to achieving our mission.
I will miss Judy dearly.
Nora Elena Genster
Senior Director, Employment Transformation Collective
(Photo of Judy Heumann above via JudithHeumann.com.)
Angelica and Steven, seated above, with colleagues at Brown & Brown.
The employees at Brown & Brown Insurance would like you to throw out any preconceived notions about working with people who have a developmental disability.
“You might automatically assume that, because they have a disability, that they’re unable to do the job,” says Account Executive Suzie Darst. “Out the window!” she exclaims. “Totally not the case. Not at all.”
She knows, because she works with two colleagues hired through Northwest Center: Angelica, who works as an administrative assistant and manages the Brown & Brown Facebook page; and Steven, a young man with degrees in both English and Computer Science, who was hired to build the company’s website.
Facilities Manager Tracy Johnson set out to hire one person, but when Angelica and Steven came in for interviews, “We fell in love with both of them,” she says. And because both candidates needed part-time work, hiring them both worked out perfectly.
As part of the interview process, Angelica mocked up a Facebook page and Steven came up with a website design, with no input from the Brown & Brown team. “We were terribly impressed,” says Tracy. “Each one of them figured out what Brown & Brown was about.” Both incorporated a cheetah into their designs—an animal symbolic to Brown & Brown, but that no one had instructed them to use.
Today, the strong work ethic and positive attitude of both employees continue to earn them rave reviews.
“Angelica comes in every day with a smile, with a laugh, so happy to be here,” says Darst. “She’s been really, really good for morale around here.”
“I always wanted to have a secretary-type position,” Angelica says. “I definitely got my dream job.”
Erika’s first few shifts at Amazon Prime Now warehouse had their challenges. The pace was hectic, she was negotiating a scanning system, and she was navigating a dizzying assortment of quadrants and aisle numbers. Several times, Northwest Center job coaches found her wandering an aisle, saying she was lost.
Jacob is more than just an employee at Cafe 50, a restaurant and coffee shop on the Microsoft campus; he’s an Ambassador. The job title is printed on his uniform apron, and he points to it proudly.
“He has a huge sense of pride,” says his mother Jeanette. “It’s his first real, paying job. He has a uniform. He’s treated like just another member of the team.”
Jacob got his job busing trays and tidying tables at Cafe 50 through Northwest Center's Transition Services team and School-to-Work, a King Country program supporting students graduating from high school to find a place in the workforce.
It was a big deal for Jacob, who lives in a small town east of Seattle, to find a job he loves.
“We started out with a different employment agency,” says Jeannette. “Until we connected with Northwest Center, we were only exploring things in our very immediate community; it was very, very limited. Northwest Center listened and really understood that I wanted to explore more than just our small town. Jacob got a wonderful job, which he loves.”
Jacob is a man of few words, but his enthusiasm for his work is obvious. He moves quickly between tables, removing used cutlery, stacking trays, and keeping a sharp eye out for departing diners.
“I clean tables two days a week, Monday and Friday,” he says as he wipes a tabletop.
Is it a fun place to work?
“Yes!” he says emphatically. “I get to see my friends [and coworkers] Darian, Jessica.” When one of the other Ambassadors interjects, “Tell them what you like to do for fun!” Jacob laughs and says, “Get the head chef’s hat.”
“He’s making friendships that are not just at school; they’re actually people out in the public," says his mom. "That’s really huge.”
But the fun Jacob has never impacts the hard work he does.
“We get busy right about now,” Jacob says, surveying the lunchtime crowd. “When Darian goes on his lunch break, sometimes I take his trays, too. Just to be helping out.”
Jacob jumps in to help his coworkers and does what needs doing, without prompting from others.
“We love Jacob. He is so smart,” says Hany, a barista with at Cafe 50 for more than 12 years. “He wants to help. He knows how to do things because he watches us.”
“He’s taken the initiative to do his job,” says Jeannette.
Jacob has also taken the initiative to talk to his boss about what new tasks he can learn and how he can grow in his career. Whatever skills he ends up mastering, it’s clear that Jacob plans to learn them at Cafe 50. He says with certainty, “I’m staying here.”
Imagine being expelled from school when you’re not even old enough to go to kindergarten. It happened to Gavin when he was just 14 months old.
“Gavin wasn’t yet crawling, and his daycare said that if he wasn’t crawling at 18 months, he wasn’t able to stay,” says his mom Kate, who tears up at the memory. “The daycare is telling you he’s going to be kicked out, and you wonder, ‘What is a place for Gavin? Where would he fit?’”
Thankfully, Gavin’s physiotherapist suggested Northwest Center Kids, where kids with and without disabilities learn and play together at two early learning preschools.
“She told us that, unequivocally, she would recommend Northwest Center for any child, whether they’re typically or atypically developing,” Kate recalls.
The family saw the changes in Gavin not long after they moved him to Northwest Center—his mobility and his interaction improved. “It’s much more inclusive,” said Kate at the time. “When I would pick Gavin up from the original daycare, the other children were crawling and walking, and he would often be by himself. Now when I pick him up, he’s playing with the other children.”
Gavin began walking at age 2, and now “He’s running and jumping and climbing,” Kate says today. “He can keep up with his peers on the playground; that’s really wonderful. He’s really loving school. On Saturdays and Sundays, he asks me if he can go to school.”
She continues, “I think it has been most beneficial to have such high quality, personalized attention and compassionate teachers who know just how much to encourage Gavin to push that little bit harder. That requires really empathetic, attentive teachers. His teachers at Northwest Center have that.”
Gavin’s story has a happy ending, but as many as 22,000 children with disabilities in King County are unable to find an inclusive preschool. That’s why Northwest Center Kids created IMPACT™ (Inclusion Mentorship Program for increasing Access in Childcare Team), a program to provide training and support to other childcare centers so that they can welcome children with special needs up to age 5.
“Instead of opening new preschools like the two we already have, we are reaching out to existing preschool staff across the county so more educators can accept kids with disabilities,” says Laura Kneedler, VP of Education & Therapy Services.
“If we built another school, we could serve 80 more children,” Kneedler says. “But by partnering with some of the early learning centers in King County, we can reach thousands of kids.”
IMPACT is off to a good start. Just three months into the program, the team had already added 12 local early learning providers to its roster of partners. At six months in, they were halfway to a goal of reaching 6,000 children in King County—a goal they initially projected to take three years.
Kate believes IMPACT will make a difference even for preschools already striving for inclusion. She points out that Gavin’s previous daycare “was not a bad daycare”—for instance, the staff made it possible for Gavin to see a physiotherapist and occupational therapist at school. “But someone like Gavin needs a little bit more,” she says.
One example of “a little bit more” is being flexible at mealtimes. At Gavin’s previous school, Kate says, he would get overwhelmed when served a whole plate of food. As a result, he was going home hungry. But at Northwest Center Kids, the staff worked with Gavin’s occupational therapist on a solution: they presented Gavin with a little bit of food at a time so he could process it better.
“The difference is the mindset,” Kate says. “There aren’t insurmountable things that need to happen in order to take care of a child like Gavin. It’s about changing the little details.”
Northwest Center has made a lasting impression on Gavin, and will continue to shape the family. Laura, a little girl born when Gavin was two, will start preschool at Northwest Center in September.
“Inclusion is important for all children,” Kate says. “It’s important for children like Gavin, who learn better and can learn from other children. It’s good for any child, just understanding it’s okay to be a little bit different.”
To learn more about IMPACT, visit NWCKidsIMPACT.org.
Northwest Center is passionate about equal rights, anti-ableism, and full inclusion for people with disabilities. Thank you for reading.