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A Memorial for Justin Dart

by James Patterson

Justin Dart

Visit the Justin Dart Memorial Website

July 29, 2002 -- Washington is home of the historic New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Abraham Lincoln worshipped there. During the height of the civil rights struggle, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached from the pulpit there. During World War II, the legendary Peter Marshall preached many famous sermons there. And on the afternoon of July 26, the twelfth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Justin Dart Jr. was remembered there. Dart, who used a wheelchair as a result of polio contracted as a teenager, had died of respiratory failure on June 22. Earlier in the day, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a resolution, signed by all commissioners, commending Mr. Dart for his work on behalf of the disabled. The resolution was accepted on behalf of the Dart family by Lex Frieden, President Bush's nominee to Chair the National Council on Disability.

Hundreds of disability activists from across the nation packed the church to mourn the passing of a man U.S. Senator Tom Harkin hailed as the "Abraham Lincoln of the disability community." Banners were displayed throughout the church proclaiming some of Justin's favorite quotes. One quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

The moderators for the nearly 3-hour service were Marca Bristo, of the National Council on Disability, and Ralph G. Neas, of the People for the American Way. The Bush administration was represented by Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao, who praised Mr. Dart for his dedication to the rights of the disabled.

The congregation yelled their approval and support for former President Bill Clinton when he was introduced to speak. Mr. Clinton called Dart a "profoundly good man." "Justin overcame self-pity in the highlight of his youth to become an advocate for disability rights, civil rights, women's rights, and rights for gays and lesbians," Mr. Clinton said. Mr. Clinton said he had been honored to give Justin the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998.

Former Republican Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and his wife Ginny, who have an adult son with retardation, also praised Dart for his life's work of making society a better place for the disabled. U.S. Senators Tom Harkin, Iowa, and Paul Wellstone, Minnesota, and many other members of Congress, past and present, were in attendance but did not speak.

During the memorial service, members of the Dart family spoke lovingly of Justin and his tireless efforts on behalf of the disabled. Yoshiko Dart, Justin's wife, and other family members sang a traditional Japanese song for the congregation. Mr. Neas noted that Justin was the ultimate coalition builder working with Democrats and Republicans to get his objectives accomplished. Neas also called Justin "the Martin Luther King Jr. of the disability community." "Justin recognized that disability rights were civil rights," Neas said. "Justin never thought of yesterday which he could not change," Neas added, "he thought only of tomorrow which he had designs to change."

By the close of the service parents were hugging their disabled children, disabled people were hugging their partners and caregivers. Everyone recognized a great leader, who called himself a soldier, had been silenced and we had been strengthened by his spirit to continue our great struggle together. Then people instinctively joined hands and broke into "We Shall Overcome," as a gospel choir led in song. It was a touching end to a beautiful memorial service.

The Dart family rented a private hall at Washington's Union Station for a buffet dinner to honor participants. Members of the Dart family provided musical interpretations of several songs including "I'll Fly Away," and "I'll be Seeing You." The Dart family is very talented and it was suggested they might perform at disability events across the country. If you are planning an event I highly recommend the Dart family as musical entertainment. At the end of the scheduled program, Yoshiko Dart encouraged participants to stay and enjoy a DJ who began to spin dance music for the balance of the evening.

One of Justin Dart's favorite sayings was "Lead or get the hell out of the way!" Another favorite saying was "Don't let the bastards get you down!" I mention these sayings to point out that Justin was a "hell raiser" when it came to disability rights, which he equated with human rights. His tactics were very much "in your face" advocacy.

It is for his tactics that Justin Dart was admired by so many. He was successful at coalition building like no other. He rallied politicians, attorneys, journalists, and government types to his causes. At his passing let us resolve to be more effective advocates and activists. The type that Justin would want us to be. Justin's last message was "Lead On!" That is a simple and practical message for all of us. Lead on in a fashion that would make Justin proud.

June 27, 2002 -- It seems that for every social problem there is a leader who is called to action. For those of us in the disability community, Justin W. Dart, Jr., was the major leader for civil rights and social justice. Dart, 71, passed away on June 22 and people across the nation are in the process of remembering and celebrating his life of leadership and accomplishment.

Dart, who characteristically wore cowboy boots and hat, has been called "The Father of the Americans with Disability Act," and "The Godfather of the Disability Rights Movement." Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, called Dart "The Abraham Lincoln of the disability community." His leadership was instrumental in passage of the ADA in 1990. His advocacy for disabled peooke spanned many years and was filled with triumphs -- and some disappointments.

Some have remarkeded that Dart was a Democrat-turned-Republican-turned Democrat but his political leanings are not important. Justin Dart, Sr. was a political conservative and an early supporter of Ronald Reagan. Perhaps as a result of his father's political ties, Dart was appointed as Commissioner of Rehabilitation Services in the Education Department in 1986. He didn't last very long in that position because he grew tired of the government's "paternalistic attitudes about disability." He resigned in 1987.

Perhaps Dart was discouraged by his government experience. Indeed the government's "paternalistic attitudes about disability" are a longstanding injustice that has been well documented. I know what I am talking about because, like Dart, I experienced it firsthand.

In 1993, I was denied an assignment to the Foreign Service due to the fact that my daughter had corrective heart surgery at birth. (She is now a happy and healthy 13-year-old.) The government's smothering paternalistic discrimination would have kept me out of the Foreign Service had it not been for Dart's visionary work on the ADA and the amended federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In 1996, after spending more than $1 million to defend their position, the government appointed me to the Foreign Service.

In a way, I am a recipient of Dart's bold leadership as well as his sweat, tears, triumphs and disappointments. Dart returned to government in 1989 to head the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. In this position, Dart urged business leaders to comply with the civil rights legislation for the disabled. Many business leaders did so; others insisted on expensive legal battles that they ultimately lost either in court or in public opinion. Dart left the Committee in 1993.

I first learned of Dart in Joe Shapiro's 1992 book No Pity. During my dispute with the government, I attended many events where Dart and his wife were in attendance. One time, I met Mr. and Mrs. Dart at an Arlington, Virginia, fundraiser for Virginia Lt. Gov. candidate John Hager, also a wheelchair user. I jokingly asked Dart why a Democrat like him would be supporting Mr. Hager, a Republican. He said he didn't see any problems in supporting Mr. Hager and that he was proud to have been a Republican for Bill Clinton in 1992. I supposed he wanted me to know that he had not totally abandoned the Republican Party. Although we disagreed on Clinton, I admired his dedication to his work.

There were many other events, rallies, and marches, where I had the opportunity to see Dart in action. He never disappointed anyone. He was a born leader. I am proud that I had a chance to see the leadership that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1998. He well deserved the medal, which he characteristically shared with disabled friends.

I last saw Dart at the American Association of People with Disabilities Leadership Gala in February. It was a cold evening and Dart was wrapped in a wool blanket that covered his legs and chest. There were hundreds of people at the event and Dart arrived just before the event began, perhaps to avoid the crowd. I recall that he seemed tired yet interested in the people who stopped to chat with him. During the event, the master of ceremonies mentioned that Justin was in attendance and the audience gave its rousing applause. Justin realized the appreciation, admiration, and, yes, the love of the audience. As if there had been any doubt.

Many words will be written about Justin W. Dart, Jr., and let not the least of them be that he was a good and honorable man who made a difference in the lives of many. He saw a better society for the disabled and worked hard to get us there. We must continue to work to make Dart's vision a reality. Yes, he was a good and honorable man.

Posted June 28, 2002

James Patterson is a Washington, DC-based freelance writer and advocate. He can be reached at JPatterson40@Compuserve.com

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