I grew up in the early days of the ADA. For those of you not in the know, ADA stands for Americans with Disabilities Act. It was a movement pioneered by Justin Dart to ensure, among other things, that children with disabilities were not excluded from every educational opportunity they would have enjoyed had they been able bodied, to the best of their intellectual and physical capability.
He was on the forefront of many of the concepts that have attempted to level the playing field for people with physical and mental challenges, with the ultimate goal of inclusion at its highest level. He took the challenge of his own polio, residual issues that manifested as a result, and eventually made into his life’s work. He used his wealth and position to champion the cause of the physically challenged throughout our nation. Wearing a cowboy hat and sitting regally in his wheelchair, he was an old man when I was first I lucky enough to hear him speak on Capitol Hill, at a rally celebrating the anniversary of the ADA.
It was many years later, at an interview in St. Louis, I heard him speak once again. Without people like Justin Dart we might not have educational plans, curb cuts or buses with lifts for wheelchair users. There might still be no handicapped parking, accessible bathrooms or reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Even though Justin Dart passed away in 2002, he is still my hero.
Of course, the sources of disability go well beyond polio. But for Justin Dart, it was the impetus of his experience. Polio was and remains a brutal menace. Where once healthy, strong, able-bodied children had stood; many were left sitting or struggling to stand – employing canes, crutches and wheelchairs.
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