Stewards of the Revolution
Most people in the disability community
know the image of President George H. W. Bush in the White House Rose Garden signing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July 1990. However, up until the recent documentary Crip Camp, many did not know the details of the long and arduous fight for disability rights that culminated in the ADA.
Prior to the passing of the Act, rallies
were held throughout the country, in-
cluding those held in New Hampshire.
The New Hampshire State House rally was attended by many advocates and legislators from across the state, as well as by Justin Dart Jr., a prominent disability rights activist who contracted polio as a young man. Dart and his wife, Yoshiko – herself a strong disability rights activist – traveled to every U.S. state, Puerto Rico, and Guam, advocating for the passing of the Act. Dart experienced discrimination throughout his life, including being denied a teaching certificate from the University of Houston because of his disability.
A man known for his candor, Dart at one point was asked to resign as lead to the Rehabilitation Services Administration* because of his comments on the ineffectiveness of the agency, calling it “a vast, inflexible federal system which, like the society it represents, still contains a significant portion of individuals who have not yet overcome obsolete, paternalistic attitudes about disability.”
Dart, along with many others, made his voice heard in Concord in 1990. Roberta Gallant, a member of the NH Council on Developmental Disabilities and the Self-Advocates Leadership Team, remembers the rally well. “There was a huge turnout,” Gallant shares. “I held up a sign. My sister, Jocelyn Gallant, also attended and held a sign. People from the Bureau of Developmental Services, the Disability Rights Center, the Governor’s Commission [on Disability], the Parent Information Center, the NH Council on Developmental Disabilities, Granite State Independent Living, and Health and Human Services were all there. The Concord Monitor, Union Leader, and WMUR-TV reported on the rally. As a representative of people with disabilities, I gave a speech on the platform about receiving accommodation from businesses throughout New Hampshire.”
Mark Race, current Supervisor of New Hampshire National Spinal Cord Injury Association and GSIL Peer Support, shared his memories. “My mentor, Sally Conway, played her acoustic guitar and we sang along outdoors on that beautiful day,” Race remembers. “It was powerful. Senator Tom Harkin advocated that the Act be a civil rights law and not something special. The motto was Same, Not Special because when is it special to be able to get into a building?”
Education = Inclusivity
The pushback against the ADA, helped along by people such as actor Clint Eastwood, who was sued for neglecting to make his California resort fully accessible, later motivated Justin Dart to help create Justice for All. (Eastwood won the case, calling it a “victory for the little guy.”) The mission of Justice for All was to educate, motivate, and support advocates throughout the country to protect not only the legislation, but the values of the ADA from systemic attempts to weaken them. Dart later helped to form the American Association of People with Disabilities, an organization dedicated to furthering the implementation of the ADA and advocating for the legal rights of people with disabilities. We can learn a great deal from Dart’s constant dedication to this cause and his resistance to complacency.
While the lives of people with disabilities have dramatically changed since the NH ADA rally, the fight continues for acceptance and inclusion.
At the end of his life, Justin Dart ended one of his many writings with these words: “Beloved colleagues in struggle, listen to the heart of this old soldier. Our lives, our children’s lives, the quality of the lives of billions in future generations hangs in the balance. I cry out to you from the depths of my being. Humanity needs you! Lead! Lead! Lead the revolution of empowerment!”
For many, the passing of the ADA was a final declaration that people with disabilities deserve the same rights, opportunities, and quality of life as
people without disabilities. However, as with other culture-changing legislative policy, the ADA has a past, a present, and a future. That future depends
on the stewardship of these rights. It also involves continuing to educate our communities on the benefits that inclusivity has for all of us.
Vanessa Blais is the NHCDD Project Manager.
ADA 30 Logo Credit: ADA National Network (adata.org)
*The Rehabilitation Services Administration is a federal agency established to assist state and other agencies in providing vocational rehabilitation (VR) for people with various disabilities.