Mary Ellen Tisdale, a local lawyer, was an activist in the disability community even before she found herself with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), and secondary disabilities due to the CFS. She has since worked to get CFS recognized as a disability by Social Security. She has also worked locally and nationally on political issues, especially in promoting voter registration during election years. Tisdale worked with Justin Dart on voter registration in Minnesota and Florida in an effort to influence public policy.
She had this to say about Justin Dart:
Due to his deep personal commitment and early financial resources, he was able to influence legislators by contributing to their campaigns to make positive decisions about laws and their effects on the lives of people with disabilities. Then, and after his financial situation changed, he traveled the country to recruit supporters to start grassroots organizations focused on issues of importance to the disability community.
Justin truly realized the necessity for people with disabilities to be involved as citizens in the political process at all levels. He continually stressed that people with disabilities should make their needs and desires known. To do this, he made voter registration a major goal, as well as working to make the disability community a player among minority voter groups. Justin knew that influencing public policymakers would ensure that legislation is effectively implemented so as to positively affect the lives of people with disabilities. Tisdale states, “I think over the years, particularly at the national level and in the last ten years, people with disabilities have made an enormous impact on disability issues.”
He took a personal risk as a lifelong Republican, possibly alienating himself from some disability rights advocates, in becoming involved in the Clinton campaign. Bill Clinton made the commitment to Justin Dart that, as president, he would further the rights of children and people with disabilities during his administration. Justin urged people with disabilities to support the Democratic Party rather than supporting George Bush, Sr., who had signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Justin then continued his commitment to the Democrats by supporting Al Gore for president and by identifying at least two people with disabilities in each of the fifty states to coordinate the election campaign of Al Gore.
The ongoing legacy of Justin Dart would be the unprecedented voter registration of people with disabilities in all 50 states. He pushed to ensure that there would be a visible disability vote in the election of 2002, and beyond. This year the election is critical. Due to census redistricting and the two-year election cycle, the entire House of Representatives will be up for election. Furthermore, one-third of the Senate will be campaigning for reelection.
In Justin’s memory, every candidate for Congress must be committed to the passage of legislation concerning the rights of children and people with disabilities, and take a public stand in 2003 supporting the adoption of the Medical Assistance Community Attendant Service Act (MA-CASA), which would allow individuals with disabilities in every state to spend the equivalent of nursing home costs on in-home care.