Justin Dart Jr.: Father of the ADA

Going to any kind of public building today, you’ll see ramps, door buttons, and a whole host of accessibility tools.  Though these things are required by law today, that wasn’t always the case. Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, there was no incentive to make businesses and public buildings accessible.  In fact, a lot of businesses thought it wouldn’t be worth it to invest in making their spaces accessible. Despite the victory of Section 504 in 1973, there were still many places that disabled people couldn’t access.  This rang all too true for Justin Dart Jr., who is heralded by many as the father of the ADA. Today, we’re going to talk about him, how he learned about his disability, and how he became one of the pioneers of the ADA.

Dart and Disability

Dart contracted polio in 1948, at the age of 18, shortly before the vaccine was invented.  It was not until he was about to graduate college, however, that he ever truly felt disabled.  Dart went to college at University of Houston, where he formed the first “integration” club. This club, meant to advocate for the all-white school to allow the entry of black students, only managed five members.  Three members were in wheelchairs. Not once did it occur to the students to fight for disability rights like they did for black students. When Dart was about to graduate with his teaching degree, the university refused saying that a man in a wheelchair could not be successful as a teacher.  

A New Perspective

On a trip to Vietnam in 1967 for a report on rehabilitation for a world conference, Dart realized how poorly disabled people were treated.  Dart toured an “institution” where children diagnosed with polio were “cared for.” This “institution” was a giant metal shed, housing a hundred sick children who were left to die.  They had swollen torsos and noodle arms, lying in their own filth. When they eventually died, they were buried out back in an unmarked grave. Being confronted with this scene, seeing children with his disability being treated so poorly, is when Dart knew he had to do something.

A New Life

Dart’s experience with polio couldn’t have been more different.  He grew up in Chicago, IL, in an affluent family. He grew up with maids, a chauffeur, and became president of his father’s company in Japan.  It wasn’t until his trip to Vietnam that he realized how the world sees him. He quit his job and set off to find answers.

Dart and his wife, Yoshiko, moved to the snowy mountains of Japan.  They gave up their comfortable lifestyle and lived without running water, electricity, or telephone. They had no car, and the long dirt roads made it impossible for Dart to use his wheelchair, so he would crawl on his hands and knees to catch a wagon ride to town.  The children in Vietnam didn’t get wheelchairs, so Dart didn’t use one. Dart and Yoshiko read philosophy books and paid more attention to Dr. Martin Luthur King Jr. They also paid close attention to the movements in Berkeley, writing them letters. This was a time for the couple to rehabilitate themselves before they felt they had the ability to help rehabilitate others, according to Yoshiko.  

Political Success

Dart returned to the US in 1974 and began serving on several state disability groups in Texas.  Because his father was a friend of President Reagan’s, many people saw Dart Jr.’s involvement in his administration as being because of his father.  However Dart Sr. had little to do with his son’s success in politics. Dart Jr. even questioned how much of his work his father was actually aware of.


In 1988, Dart Jr. would begin work on what would later become the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA.  He along with Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr. — a research specialist who contracted polio as an infant and was left with a limp arm — and the rest of the National Council for the Handicapped would set out to write similar laws to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The council was made up of disabled people, as well as parents and doctors.  

And that’s it for today!  We’ve got a lot more to cover on the ADA’s history, and it’s all very fascinating.  Check back soon to read more!

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