BARCLAYS – The 2018 Brooklyn College commencement at Barclays Center Thursday morning wasn’t a boring one. Pioneering disability rights activist Judith “Judy” Heumann gave a compelling speech on fighting adversity, and Borough President Eric Adams announced that he will be the next mayor of NYC.
“I’m a Brooklyn girl,” Heumann said proudly. At the commencement filled with 4,131 graduates, Heumann, the Honorary Degree recipient, spoke about her own. When she graduated Sheepshead Bay High School, the ceremony was held at Brooklyn College. At the time, the stage was not wheelchair accessible.
“As my father was pulling my wheelchair up the steps, the high school principal came over and said no. I should remain in the front row in the audience and they will come to me.”
Heumann was fine with just “rolling away,” but her parents insisted she go on stage. The principal begrudgingly agreed to let her come on stage to receive the award, but she had to remain at the back of the stage behind the students, “out of sight.”
“It was pretty mortifying,” she said. “It was a mortifying experience for a young woman who like any teenager, just wanted to fit in and not draw attention to herself.”
Heumann contracted polio when she was 18 months old. She was put on an Iron Lung for three months and was in and out of the hospital for three years. She now fights for those with disabilities and worked for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services in the Department of Education and the first special advisor for International Disability Rights in the U.S. State Department.
She credits her parents for teaching her the value of advocacy.
When Heumann was two-years-old, her doctors advised her parents to put her in an institution to make their lives easier, so they wouldn’t have to be “bothered with my disability.” Her parents said no.
At five-years-old, she was denied admission to local schools as she could not walk, and the buildings were not accessible. Instead, she was to get 2.5 hours a week of home education until she was nine.
Heumann wanted to become a teacher. She took all of the tests required to be one with her friends carrying her up and down the buildings as none were wheelchair accessible. She passed everything except the medical exam. She eventually sued the Board of Education and won.
“Choosing to fight for myself not only got me my teaching license and my job,” she said, “it gave me my life’s calling which has been to advocate for the rights of disabled people and marginalized groups here and around the world.”
“Some of you will say stand up on your own, I would say sit up on my own in my wheelchair.”
Borough President Eric Adams also delivered a forceful speech.
“Don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do,” Adams said. “They told me I couldn’t be a captain in the police department, I became a captain. They told me I couldn’t be a state senator, I became a state senator. They told me I couldn’t be the first person of color to be the borough president, I became borough president.”
“In three years they said I couldn’t be the mayor, I will be the mayor in three years.”
“We live in a time where we see increasing acts of tolerance and bigotry against those who are different. Immigrants of color, in particular, are being scapegoated on the national stage,” said Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson. “At Brooklyn College, however, we know that our diversity is our strength… Studying at Brooklyn College provides our students with the opportunity to engage with difference and complexity, which makes them more inter-culturally competent and willing to assume challenging positions of leadership in today’s society.”
“We are deeply committed to dialogue that seeks truth and we believe that there is value in discussing ideas that challenge our own, even if it makes us uncomfortable.”
Senator Chuck Schumer advised students to keep going and make a change.
“When I graduated from college, words like terrorism and mass shootings were never heard of,” Schumer said. “But the good news is this: your generation is better equipped to adapt and take advantage of all these new changes than any generation before you.”
Council Member Jumaane Williams is a two-time graduate of Brooklyn College, receiving both his bachelor’s and masters. He referenced Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling as a positive show of activism.
“There’s a lot of activism in sports right now, so sports are important,” he said. “It shows you can be an activist anywhere and you can stand up even if you have to kneel down.”
As Eric Adams said in his speech: “Not everybody is gonna love you. You call them haters. Let your haters be your waiters while you sit at the table of success.”
Here’s the video from the ceremony: