Originally published March 1998
Justin Dart dreams big: Love, empowerment, truth, freedom and justice for all. But the great orator of the disability rights movement also has struggled with his own pettiness. “When I was a businessman and athlete in the ’50s,” he says, “I thought that disability rights activists were a bunch of old ladies talking about infirmities, while I was out doing important, macho things.”
Now Dart, 67, a full-time independent advocate in Washington, D.C., admits his faults like a fallen evangelist. “I made every fashionable mistake — alcohol, prescription drugs, womanizing, divorces, bad mouthing, big mouthing, bad parenting and outrageous self-advertising.”
His turnaround couldn’t be more dramatic. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Bill Clinton presented Dart the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award for service to the country. The award honors Dart as a leading architect of the Americans With Disabilities Act and a driving force behind its passage.
“Justin Dart,” declares the certificate, “has earned our thanks for helping us to realize the possibility within each individual and for tenaciously advocating equal access to the American Dream for all our people.”
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Justin Dart Jr. spent his youth playing the rotten little rich boy — hurling insults at anyone who would listen, and, among other accomplishments, breaking Humphrey Bogart’s demerit record at Andover prep school. He abandoned his obnoxious antics — but not his basic rebelliousness — only after a near-fatal bout with polio in 1948. He emerged from the hospital humbled by the kindness he received there and by his new status as a wheelchair user in a land of conformity.
Dart was 20 years old and lost. He felt pressured by his father to continue on the elite track, but he needed to assert his independence. “I was searching for something to believe in,” he says. What he found was Gandhi’s book, My Experiments With Truth. “It gave me a vision, a passionate vision that permeated my whole consciousness and still does. It’s a pretty simple idea — to find your own personal truth and live it — but it takes a lifetime of experimentation.” …
Dart’s father soon tapped him for a risky venture overseas: launching Japan Tupperware. Dart made good in two short years, growing the company from four employees to 25,000. But the corporate life led him astray.
“I got off the Ghandi track and got on the Donald Trump track,” Dart says. “I told myself that this was my truth, so I’m going to go along with the system and infiltrate it with a more profound truth. But I found that I was conning myself and I was just doing the ordinary thing: being flamboyant and doing photo ops, making money by any means, drinking and chasing women.”
When he resigned from Japan Tupperware, he started a greeting card company that benefited people with disabilities. Still, the flashy lifestyle was at odds with his humanitarian urges. The press called him St. Justin in a Wheelchair, but Dart knew he was a fake. And after a 1966 media event at a Saigon “institution” for children with polio — a 15,000-square foot pavilion with a tin roof and a concrete floor — his self-disgust became intolerable.
“The floor of the whole place was covered with children ages 4 to 10, with bloated stomachs and matchstick limbs,” he recalls. “They were starving to death and lying in their own urine and feces, covered with flies. A little girl reached up to me and looked into my eyes. I automatically took her hand and my photographer took pictures. She had the most serene look I have ever seen — and it penetrated to the deepest part of my consciousness. I thought, here is a person almost dead, and she knows it. She’s reaching out for God and has found a counterfeit saint doing a photo op. I was engulfed by the devastating perception that I have met real evil, and I am part of it. The way I’m living and dealing with disability is killing this little girl. I’m going to go to my hotel, drink Johnnie Walker, eat a steak, and this picture is going to be in some magazine. I told
Dart was a quick study, and he spent the 1980s as a government appointee in posts that included vice chair of the National Council on Disability, head of the Rehabilitation Services Administration and chair of the President’s Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities. All tallied, Dart held five gubernatorial, one congressional and five presidential appointments in the area of disability policy.
Predictably, he aspired to be more than a policy wonk. Many of his reports and recommendations helped shape the ADA, but he poured his real energy into ensuring its passage. Wearing his now-famous ADA cowboy hat, he visited every state several times, spoke at every possible forum and haunted the halls of Capitol Hill. He became a nagging conscience to the nation.
His relentless advocacy — along with the work of many others — finally paid off with the signing of the ADA in 1990. Afterwards, members of Congress are said to have joked, “We had to pass the ADA to get that hat out of the halls.”