Justin Dart Jr., a leader in the battle for equal rights for disabled Americans, died Saturday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 71.
In failing health since 1997 after a series of heart attacks, Dart died in his sleep of natural causes.
To advocates for the disabled, Dart was the driving force behind the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 civil rights law.
“He was one of our country’s greatest warriors in the fight for civil rights for people with disabilities,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Saturday in a statement.
“He was a friend of mine, and I will miss him very much.”
Born to privilege, Dart was the son of Justin Dart, the late Southern California industrialist and a longtime political advisor to Ronald Reagan. His grandfather was the founder of the Walgreens drug store chain.
Justin Dart Jr. was born in Chicago. An underachieving student, he attended seven private high schools in different parts of the country. At 18, he contracted polio while attending high school in Los Angeles.
“They thought I was going to die, but I spent more than a year in a rehab hospital,” he told the Chicago Tribune some years ago. Dart first tried college in California but transferred to the University of Houston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and later a master’s degree.
Politically liberal in those days, Dart organized his campus’ first human-rights club, which advocated the integration of the all-white university. The club attracted only five members.
“This was in the days of Joe McCarthy and the Dixiecrats,” Dart told the Tribune.
“I enjoyed liberal Democratic politics, and I got active in that. People thought we were close to communism. I got heavy into civil rights way before the 1960s. I even had an FBI file.”
But his political awakening was limited, and he didn’t think much about the rights of the disabled--even though Texas officials tried to withhold his high school teaching certificate because he used a wheelchair.
Dart dabbled in law school at the University of Texas, quit that and opened a bowling alley in Austin.
In 1962, his father sent him to Japan to start the firm that became Japan Tupperware Inc. Within two years, Dart built the company from three employees to 25,000 employees working in 152 offices.
Stigma of Disability
Dart also started independent living centers and sponsored a work program in Japan for those coming out of hospitals who were employable but faced the social stigma of being disabled.
While in Japan, Dart met his wife, Yoshiko, who survives him along with their five daughters.
Dart would later recall that he and his conservative father often clashed over political issues.
“There were some years we didn’t meet at all,” Dart once told The Times. “He was so intense about his politics, and I was so intense about mine.”
But Dart added: “We did agree on one thing--the importance of democracy and the democratic process. He told me to participate in the democratic process as if your life depended on it because it does.”
After 12 years in Japan, Dart and his family returned to Texas, and he wrote extensively about the issues surrounding disability in the workplace. He created an independent living facility for the disabled in Austin and was named to the state commission on disabilities.
In the early 1980s, President Reagan named Dart to the National Council on Disability and over time Dart and other committee members developed an agenda that declared civil rights for the disabled to be a national priority.
They next turned to writing another document called “Total Independence,” which outlined points that later became the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In 1986, Dart was appointed to head the Rehabilitation Services Administration under the Department of Education, then headed by William Bennett. By all accounts Dart was a hard worker, conducting research on disability-related issues in all 50 states and five Indian nations.
He called for radical change in the way the $3-billion agency was being run and urged that people with disabilities be included in every aspect of program implementation and design.
His tenure with the agency was short-lived, however, after he delivered what he called a “statement of conscience” in an open congressional hearing, saying the agency was “afflicted ... by profound problems in areas such as management, personnel and resource utilization.”
He resurfaced in 1989 as chairman of the President’s Committee on the Employment of People with Disabilities, lobbying for civil rights legislation to cover the disabled. President George Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law on July 26, 1990, and gave Dart the first pen he used to set his name to the historic statute.
Dart, who had been a supporter of Reagan and later Bush through the 1980s, joined the Clinton administration’s push for universal health care in the 1990s. When that effort failed, he returned his focus to the rights of the disabled in the face of efforts by the conservative Congress to water down the legislation.
He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Clinton in 1998.
A memorial is planned for July 26, the 12th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.