Justin Dart was born into a wealthy family in 1930. At age 18, he contracted polio right before entering college. As a result of the polio infection, Dart became a wheelchair user. He persisted in completing his education, earning degrees in both history and education. Unfortunately, his school, the University of Houston, would not award him a teaching certificate because of his disability.
While Dart went on to become a successful entrepreneur, he discontinued his business career to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. He and his wife went on a nationwide campaign to help organize activists for disabled persons’ rights. He funded the campaign out of his own resources. The campaign was often a challenge because of the lack of accommodations for persons with disabilities. Rarely could he find a hotel that he could enter without difficulty.
Working in and out of government, Dart was able to get Congress to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. Once the ADA was passed, there were attempts to weaken the legislation. Dart continued to fight for the rights of people with disabilities, even after suffering from serious heart ailments brought on by the polio he had as a teen. He also advocated for the civil rights of women, and racial and sexual minorities.
Dart was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton. He is known today as the “Godfather” of the ADA.
As he was dying, he wrote a challenge to all of us. “Listen to the heart of this old soldier. Our lives, our children’s lives, the quality of the lives of billions in future generations hangs in the balance. I cry out to you from the depths of my being. Humanity needs you. Lead! Lead! Lead the revolution of empowerment. Lead on!”
As our society has evolved into a split between the haves and have-nots, Dart set an example to which we might all aspire. Born into a family of great wealth, he decided to devote his wealth, social standing, and personal life to the needs of others. Although he had a disability, he could have focused on making sure he had the best treatment available. Instead, he put himself in situations that were very uncomfortable to him so that he could advocate for those who lacked his resources.
While few of us have Dart’s financial resources, we can still “lead on” for those who lack our resources. All of us have causes we care about. Many of us volunteer our time and resources to these causes. Just imagine what difference it would make if we challenged ourselves to “lead on.” Just imagine what it would take to energize others to support the causes we believe in. Few of us have the national platform that Dart had, but just imagine what all of us can do to “lead on” at a local level.
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“I call for solidarity among all who love justice, all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all.”–Justin Dart Jr.
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.