The Legacy of Justin Dart

Many writers wiser and better than I have written of the passing of Justin Dart, a leader of both human and disability rights for the last 25 years.  He was a tireless supporter of the disadvantaged and the marginalized, recognizing that it was often the trifecta of public policy, and environmental and attitudinal barriers that created this second-class social and economic status not one’s physical or cognitive abilities.

Dart was a Washington power broker, armed not only with a razor-sharp mind and knowledge of political systems and players, but with the money to make him impossible to ignore.  There have been whispers about his wealth, as if this somehow compromised his status as a “true” member of the disability community.  There is no doubt he was a son of privilege, inheriting great wealth and later creating it in Japan as a businessman.  Wealth seems to run in families like Dart’s the way receding hairlines do in mine, passed down from one generation to the next.  There are no apologies needed for this.  We should all be thankful Dart chose to focus his attention and resources on improving community integration for all members of the disability community not just wheelchair users like himself.

But while wealth has a way of creating more wealth after a certain point, there are no like economic principles guiding the building and sustaining of disability advocates with the passion and skill that comprise the real crux of Justin’s legacy.  Unfortunately, Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding market forces does not tap people on the shoulder and invite them into the disability fold.  This we must be mindful in doing:  creating a cadre of future leaders to carry the banner and fill the footsteps of those who have gone before.

Dart was aware of this, and invited countless individuals with disabilities to his Washington home in a grassroots, independent living version of Ronald Reagan’s kitchen cabinet of which Dart’s father was a member.  In doing so, Justin was not only mentoring, but empowering young people, simultaneously building a knowledge base and self-esteem in each of those visitors.

But this alone will not ensure the staying power of a new generation of leaders within the disability community.  We need more formal programs like Partners in Policymaking, founded in 1987 by the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.  Its goal is to engage and build the skills of individuals with disabilities and the parents of young children with disabilities to become the leaders of tomorrow.  Since its inception, 46 states have followed suit and close to 10,000 program graduates are scattered across the nation.  (Applications for the next local program are due August 1.)  Programs like these are essential capacity-building efforts. They take resources and energy, and the return
on investment may take some time, but they are vital in regenerating our community.

The American Association of People with Disabilities is helping to encourage new blood as well, drawing attention each year to individuals with disabilities around the country with its Paul Hearne Awards.  Recipients garner $10,000 each to aid in their efforts.

These are important programs that we all should know about and support.  These are people we should be forging relationships with and programs that deserve replication.  We need a nationwide network of new leaders to backfill our aging mentors.

Today in Washington, and scattered throughout the country in pockets from California to Colorado to Texas, is a loosely knit coalition of disability advocates and activists with disabilities, doing yeoman’s work at the state level and descending on the nation’s capital when needed to flex their political muscle on federal issues.  They include the giants of the independent living movement:  Judy Heumann, Lex Frieden, Bob Kafka, Becky Ogle, June Kailes, Marca Bristo, John Kemp, Fred Fay, and others who can trace their roots to the dark days when “No wheelchairs allowed” signs were not only a reality, but they were bought and paid for with public tax dollars.  These folks have fought the good fight together and their collective strength has fundamentally altered the way people with disabilities are viewed by the governmental and political systems we encounter.  We owe it to ourselves to look beyond our state borders and engage others in all corners of the country to not only build our numbers, but our communication network as well.

An emerging class of young Turks at the national level is growing, including Henry Claypool, Andrew Imparato, Jennifer Sheehy, and Jonathan Young.  Who are they?  You owe it to yourself to find out.  Justin Dart’s mighty and many accomplishments will endure.  The void left by his passing, I hope, will not.  He was fond of saying “lead on” and he said it often.  It was not an idle statement.  It was both an invitation and a command.  We owe it to him, and those who will come after us, to heed the call.

[Editor’s note:  For more information on Justin Dart, please visit the Justice for All website at:  http://www.jfanow.org and search the Past Alert Archives for June 22, 2002 and subsequent days.]