I grew up in the early days of the ADA. For those of you not in the know, ADA stands for Americans with Disabilities Act. It was a movement pioneered by Justin Dart to ensure, among other things, that children with disabilities were not excluded from every educational opportunity they would have enjoyed had they been able bodied, to the best of their intellectual and physical capability.
He was on the forefront of many of the concepts that have attempted to level the playing field for people with physical and mental challenges, with the ultimate goal of inclusion at its highest level. He took the challenge of his own polio, residual issues that manifested as a result, and eventually made into his life’s work. He used his wealth and position to champion the cause of the physically challenged throughout our nation. Wearing a cowboy hat and sitting regally in his wheelchair, he was an old man when I was first I lucky enough to hear him speak on Capitol Hill, at a rally celebrating the anniversary of the ADA.
It was many years later, at an interview in St. Louis, I heard him speak once again. Without people like Justin Dart we might not have educational plans, curb cuts or buses with lifts for wheelchair users. There might still be no handicapped parking, accessible bathrooms or reasonable accommodations in the workplace. Even though Justin Dart passed away in 2002, he is still my hero.
Of course, the sources of disability go well beyond polio. But for Justin Dart, it was the impetus of his experience. Polio was and remains a brutal menace. Where once healthy, strong, able-bodied children had stood; many were left sitting or struggling to stand – employing canes, crutches and wheelchairs.
Parents realized the child they had nursed through polio was the same child they had loved before polio, but with unique and different circumstances, new frustrations, and uncharted challenges. The hearts of America’s parents changed – but the landscape did not. Some polio victims, who had lost only their physical, but not mental capacities, attended universities, successfully completed their studies but were still denied necessary certifications needed for employment, based solely on their physical disabilities.
Such a case was the case of Justin Dart who had studied education, but was not awarded the necessary certificate to teach.
Last week I posted a letter I had written to my representative about amnesty. There were many comments made – one in particular about how Americans tend to talk a lot and do little. How it is futile to write letters and that we will all end up slaves to the socialist government because of our failure to do anything other than chatter.
Yesterday the vote came in and obviously the majority went forward with the move towards amnesty. One could argue this to be an “I told you so” moment for my reader – perhaps. The battle moves on to the House and I will once again write letters to my Senators explaining my position, while hoping and praying for the best. So, you ask, what does this have to do with Justin Dart or the ADA?
It would have been easy for Justin Dart to complacently sit back and accept what society, and probably some of his friends and family, told him was unchangeable. His family was wealthy and most likely he could have availed himself of their resources for his own selfish gratification.
But, he did not. Instead, the monies he made in the business world were used to finance his wider vision of changes for everyone. He realized the error of a flawed society who failed to see the value intrinsic in everyone – able bodied or challenged, and was determined to change it.
I, like many children before and after me, am a benefactor of his efforts. I was born with the neural tube birth defect called spina bifida myelomeningocele. My first surgery was at three days old. My case was so severe that doctors told my parents most likely I would not walk, nor talk and would be mentally challenged. In time I talked, perhaps a little too much.
I not only walked, but also ran as best I could. In 1972, when I attended school for the first time, despite legislation mandating a mainstream education, I had educators who could not see past my physical limitations. As, I moved through the public school system, even at the age of five, I was keenly aware that my old first grade teacher didn’t like me or believe I belonged there. But, Principal Latta, who always called me “doll” and a polio survivor himself, loved and admired me.
At that age I couldn’t understand why, but as I grew older I understood why. The feeling was mutual. When I was moved into a private education system, after being threatened by girls in my public school, I was placed in remedial reading classes, even though I was reading far beyond grade level. My new principal could not believe that a child with my physical limitations could possibly be that intelligent. I was removed after the first year – the classes were painful and unnecessary. My life is full of antidotes denoting the difference between the naysayers and truth as determined by my own personal tenacity.
In life, the war is only truly lost when you give up fighting for what you know is right. Battles and issues come and go, but what is truth is always truth; what is right is never changing. Justin Dart had many resources at his disposal to change what had always been wrong, and, as an individual with a disability, I appreciate his courage and fortitude. Having only modest means, I know that it is unlikely that my efforts, no matter how valiant they may be, will probably not have the same impact his efforts did.
But, that does not dissuade me from trying to change what I can and speaking out for what is right. One day, in spite of the doctors who told me I could never have children, I will tell my grandchildren that I fought for them, for their future, for their nation. I will tell them that I stood on Capitol Hill and listened to Justin Dart speak.
I will tell them that I rallied in support of our troops in Desert Storm. And, I will tell them that, when I no longer had the resources to do those things, due to the constraints of raising their parent, health and financial means, I went to political rallies, I met Mitt Romney and I wrote heartfelt truths to those who in a position to preserve our nation for them, and I prayed that would be enough. But, like my hero Justin Dart, I never stopped trying.