A Short History of Justin Dart, Jr., “Father” of the ADA

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Stephanie Woodward

We’re approaching the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and it seems only fitting to consider some of its history.

Justin Dart, Jr., who is widely thought of as the “father” of the ADA, was born in 1930 to a very wealthy, prominent family. Growing up, Justin was very misbehaved, attending seven high schools, but never graduating. He later described himself as a “super-loser,” admitting that he didn’t like himself. In 1948 Justin contracted polio and was given three days to live. It was at this point in his life that Justin changed directions. Justin felt loved and was given affection by those around him and liked the feeling. In turn, he began to treat people with respect and love. Although polio turned Justin into a wheelchair user, it did not kill him. He went on to receive his bachelors and masters degrees, then began to work in business. In Japan, Justin was the president of Tupperware Japan, where he hired women and people with disabilities to empower them. Justin was interested in more than money — he wanted to create social change. Soon executives in the U.S. told Dart, according to Mouth Magazine, “to stop promoting women to executive positions [and to] stop his disability campaign.” Upon hearing these orders, Justin and his wife, Yoshiko, resigned.

In the early 1980’s, Dart was a member and eventually the chair of the Texas Governor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities. In 1981, President Reagan selected Dart to be the vice-chair of the National Council on Disability. At this time Justin and Yoshiko began a national tour, stopping in every state to gather stories from individuals with disabilities. Their goal was to collect accounts of injustices and hardships that disabled people faced in order to create a piece of legislation that would finally address discrimination against people with disabilities in America. The Darts did all of this at their own expense, twice.

After meeting with disabled people across the nation, Justin and Yoshiko brought the stories they collected back to Washington, D.C. and began working towards legislation that is now known as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Upon receiving the information collected, Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa worked with many other prominent leaders to author the ADA. Harkin refers to the ADA as “an ‘emancipation proclamation’ for people with disabilities” and believes that disabled individuals “spend a lifetime overcoming not what God wrought, but what man has imposed by custom and law” (source: McCrone).

Senator Harkin worked very hard to pass the ADA and, on July 26, 1990, George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on the Whitehouse lawn. With Justin Dart on the stage beside him, the last words Bush spoke before signing the document into law were, “let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”

After the ADA was signed into law, Justin explained why the ADA is so significant for disabled individuals across America:

The ADA is a landmark commandment of fundamental human morality. It is the world’s first declaration of equality for people with disabilities by any nation. It will proclaim to America and to the world that people with disabilities are fully human; that paternalistic, discriminatory, segregationist attitudes are no longer acceptable; and that henceforth people with disabilities must be accorded the same personal respect and the same social and economic opportunities as other people. (eeoc.gov)

Since the ADA was passed, individuals with disabilities have been able to improve their lives. The ADA is used daily to even the playing field for disabled people. Additionally, the ADA has been upheld and strengthened through lawsuits, such as the Olmstead case tried in the Supreme Court. With the ADA as support, individuals with disabilities can and will continue to take strides to improve their lives and their communities.