Photo Caption: Justin Dart, far right, witnesses President George H.W. Bush sign the Americans with Disabilities Act into law in 1990.
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) opened numerous doors for people with disabilities. We take things such as accessible entranceways for granted today; but before the passage of the ADA, that was something people who used wheelchairs could only dream about.
One of the people responsible for its passage was Justin Dart Jr, known as the “Father of the ADA” and the godfather of the disability rights movement. Dart was born August 29, 1930, in Chicago. He was an activist and humanitarian that fought to ensure the civil rights of minority groups, especially people with disabilities.
Dart contracted polio as a teenager and spent many years living with his disability before using his business and self-advocacy skills to influence the lives of people with disabilities. While attending the University of Houston, Dart started the Integration Club, an organization that focused on the civil rights movement of the time. During this time, people with disabilities weren’t a population that people talked about. As Joseph Shapiro writes in his book, No Pity, “Reflecting on the time, Dart says ‘That shows the sort of subhuman perception that existed of people with disabilities, and how it was internalized even by those with disabilities.” In fact, the university Dart attended denied granting his teaching credits, believing someone in a wheelchair couldn’t be a teacher.
Dart came from a business savvy family. His grandfather founded Walgreen’s drug stores and his father was also a well-known drug store and direct-selling magnate, having owned a stake in Avon and Tupperware. Dart Jr. was known to use his business acumen to assist people with disabilities. He took Tupperware to Japan and Mexico and used that company as a way to help women and people with disabilities gain meaningful employment. “In Japan, for example, he took severely disabled people out of institutions, gave them paying jobs within his company, and organized some of them into Japan's first wheelchair basketball team.”
His passion for disability rights deepened after a trip to South Vietnam in 1966 when he visited a “rehabilitation center” that housed children with polio. The children were malnourished and essentially left to die. The trip impacted him so deeply that he decided to make drastic changes in his life. He left the business world and devoted his life to the disability rights movement. Moving his family to Texas in 1974, he immersed himself in the disability community and really began to form a strong grassroots movement for the change that was soon to come. His recipe for success was a combination of meetings, empowerment, and advocacy until change happened.
Leading up to passage of the ADA, Dart participated in many town hall meetings across the country where he listened to the different experiences of people with disabilities who had been discriminated against. These examples were used to demonstrate the impact that the lack of access had on the lives of those with a disability. This is something that up until that point had never been addressed by lawmakers. In 1981, President Ronald Regan appointed Dart as the vice-chairman of the National Council on Disability. Dart was also the Chairman of the Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.
If anyone could use their self-advocacy skills to materialize change, it was Dart. He was involved in almost every aspect of getting the ADA passed into law. As the chairman of the Congressional Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities from 1988 to 1990, he helped craft the final language of the ADA that today requires public facilities to be adapted to accommodate disabled people. He was on stage with President George H.W. Bush, when the ADA was signed into law in July 1990. The ADA is seen as one of the most important pieces of legislation addressing the civil rights of people with disabilities.
The practice of people with disabilities advocating and lobbying for change was born, and took shape with pioneers like Dart who crossed the country in his wheelchair, cowboy hat, and boots. He was also a co-founder of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), and, according to Flaischer and Zames, authors of The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation, Dart used his own funds to support Justice For All, “a communication base for grassroots organizers and a lobbying force in Washington.”
Even after the passage of the ADA, Dart went around ensuring that businesses and other entities were adhering to the laws that were put into place. According to an article in The New York Times, when he was traveling the country to promote the ADA a commuter airline refused to allow him and his assistant to board a plane because they were in wheelchairs, sparking newspaper headlines all over the country and outrage among advocates for the disabled. In 1998, he was the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Bill Clinton. This is the highest award that can be awarded to a civilian. Dart was a true example of the difference a person with a disability could make on the political landscape of the day.
Before his death on June 22, 2002, Dart advocated for many of the simple accommodations and accessibility people with disabilities have in modern society. Because of his efforts and those of others like him, the physical landscape of the United States shifted when no one thought it possible. The results of his compassion for people and passion for disability rights are visible every day in the lives of people with disabilities whose world truly opened up for the better.