Written By: Menachem Rephun, Creative Spirit Communication Manager
For over a century, the disability rights movement has seen its share of outstanding individuals who have been “movers and shakers” in the truest sense, working to protect fundamental civil liberties and ensure inclusion and representation for the roughly 61 million Americans with disabilities. Groundbreaking legislation such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which dramatically improved inclusion, protection against discrimination, and accessibility, and Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, which protected people with disabilities from discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance, would not have been possible without the resilience and courage of these advocates, who worked tirelessly both behind the scenes and in public to make their voices, and the voices of others with disabilities, heard. In previous essays, we focused on leaders like Bessie Blount, Judy Heumann, Kitty Cone, and others. In this article, we’ll profile five additional individuals and their stories, which continue to inspire all advocates for disability rights.
- Rev. Wade Blank
Every so often, individuals emerge whose commitment to equality and social justice represents a beacon of light in turbulent times. Rev. Wade Blank (1940 – 1993) was one of those individuals. He is best known as the founder of ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, now Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today), a grassroots disability rights organization that began in 1983 as an offshoot of the Atlantis Community, an initiative Blank started in Denver, Colorado in 1975 to help people with severe disabilities live full, independent lives.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised in Canton, Ohio, Blank discovered his passion for civil rights when marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, during his time as a student at McCormick Theological Seminary, and was also involved in the anti-war movement at Kent State University. In 1971, Blank began working as Recreational Director for the youth wing of Denver’s Heritage House, a nursing home for individuals with severe physical and mental disabilities. During this time, Blank observed that the residents lacked any real independence or basic community structure. In 1975, he was fired for suggesting that a few of the residents be allowed to move into apartments, where the orderlies could visit them periodically and attend to their needs. Following Blank’s dismissal, the nursing home reversed all the reforms he had introduced. Undeterred, Blank went on to found the Atlantis Community that same year. This was a radical, innovative effort to help people with severe disabilities live independently by providing free individualized care, housing, meals, in-home care, and job training. Blank’s wife, Molly served as the sole grant writer for Atlantis and was responsible for securing most of its funding.
1983 marked the founding of the Atlantis Community’s offshoot, ADAPT, which tackled discrimination and lack of physical accessibility in the public transportation system of Denver and the broader U.S. The genesis for ADAPT took place on July 5 – 6 of 1978, when 19 members of the Atlantis Community (later dubbed “the Gang of 19”), led by Blank, threw themselves in front of public buses for 24 hours, chanting “we will ride!” until they were able to meet with representatives of the Regional Transportation District (RTD), who ultimately agreed to install lifts in at least a third of their public bus fleet. This activism emerged from the direct parallel Wade perceived between the Black civil rights movement and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. “The black movement wanted to ride the buses equally,” Blank reflected, according to a report by writer Laura Hershey. “The black movement wanted to eat at the Woolworth’s counters. The black movement wanted the right to vote. The black movement wanted the right to keep their families together. The black movement wanted the right to be integrated into the school system. That’s what the disability rights movement wants, exactly.” Blank was unapologetic in advocating for a direct, confrontational approach to achieve social change. “My members are into confrontation,” he said. “We’ll tell somebody what we want, and we’ll talk about it once or twice, but that’s it. Then we deal with you. Either we’ll shut you down or whatever.” This take-no-prisoners approach proved successful, as ADAPT would go on to lead the 1990 “Capitol Crawl”, in which numerous demonstrators with disabilities crawled up the steps of the U.S. Capitol building to make a powerful statement against the physical inaccessibility of public spaces for people with disabilities. This event received enormous media coverage and helped pave the way for the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) just a few months later.
Although he was not disabled himself, Blank was connected to disability rights on a personal level, as his stepdaughter Heather had cerebral palsy. Blank’s tireless advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities and championing their civil rights unquestionably had a huge impact on improving accessibility and inclusion. In the words of Justin Dart, the renowned disability rights activist widely regarded as the “father” of the ADA, “Wade Blank was a sensitive philosopher of Democracy. He was a superb organizer. He was a mature, sophisticated politician. He had total honesty and total follow through.” Tragically, Blank’s life was cut short during a family vacation to Baja, California on Feb. 13, 1993, when Blank drowned after unsuccessfully attempting to rescue his 8-year-old son Lincoln from a riptide. Thirty years after his untimely passing, Blank’s legacy lives on through the continued work of ADAPT, which supports healthcare, housing, accessibility, and more for people with disabilities, and through the ADA, whose passage can be partially attributed to the demonstrations and public advocacy of Blank and ADAPT.
- Justin Dart Jr.
No discussion of true leaders and heroes within the disability rights movement would be complete without mentioning Justin Dart Jr. (August 29, 1930 – June 22, 2002). A decades-long champion of equal rights for people with disabilities, Dart has been heralded as the “father of the ADA” for his involvement in getting that vital legislation signed into law, transforming accessibility and inclusion in the United States. To advocate for the ADA’s passage, Dart and his wife Yoshiko visited every state in the country, at their own expense, at least five times, according to JustinDart.com. The couple’s objective in doing this was to hear from activists and people with disabilities firsthand, gathering accounts of hardships and injustices in what came to be known as “discrimination diaries”, to drive home the necessity of passing the ADA.
Born in Chicago, Illinois to a wealthy and prominent family (his maternal grandfather, Charles Walgreen, was the founder of the Walgreens drugstore chain), Dart was no stranger to the experience of living with a physical disability. In 1948, at the age of 18, he contracted polio and was given a bleak prognosis of just three days to live. Thankfully, Dart defied this grim prediction by many decades, but utilized a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Rather than demoralizing by his diagnosis, Dart felt it represented a positive turning point in his life. Before contracting polio, Dart had, by his admission, struggled with low self-esteem and behavioral issues, attending seven high schools without graduating. According to the Center for Disability Rights, Dart experienced a newfound love and affection from others following his polio diagnosis, and began to treat others with greater respect and love in return. In his own words, “I found my truth in advocating a united, loving society with justice for all.” Dart went on to receive his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in political science and history, pursuing a career in business. In 1963, Dart founded Tupperware Japan, growing the company within two years from just three employees to roughly 25,000. As president of the organization, Dart prioritized hiring women and people with disabilities as part of his commitment to inclusion, disability rights, and social change, but resigned after being ordered by executives from Japan Tupperware’s parent company to “stop promoting women to executive positions [and to] stop his disability campaign”, according to a report by Mouth Magazine.
Dart’s life-long commitment to disability rights was inspired in equal parts by his own personal experience, the philosophy of Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi, and a 1966 visit to a “rehabilitation center” in Vietnam, in which Dart was shocked to witness first-hand the horrific, inhumane conditions in which children with disabilities were being forced to live, an experience he described as “burned forever in my soul.” In the 1980s, Dart continued his advocacy efforts as chair of the Texas Governor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities, and then as vice chair of the National Council on Disabilities (NCD), a position he was appointed to by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. After meeting with disability rights activists and disabled people from across the country, Dart and his colleagues, including NCD Chair Sandra Swift Perrino, drafted the national policy for legislation to protect the basic civil rights of people with disabilities. This was the basis for the ADA, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990, with Dart, Perrino, disability advocate Rev. Harold Wilke, and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Evan Kemp all in attendance on the White House lawn. Dart passed away in Washington D.C. on June 22, 2002, at the age of 71. Despite having been born into wealth and privilege, Dart dedicated his life to helping millions of Americans who had been marginalized and disenfranchised. His legacy and worldview were reflected in his final statement to the disabilities community he had championed for so many decades: “I call for solidarity among all who love justice, all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all.” That revolution, which culminated in the ADA, is still ongoing, but society is far more inclusive and accessible for the millions of Americans with disabilities thanks to the resilience and courage of Dart and his colleagues who ensured the passage of the ADA.
- Ed Roberts
Judy Heumann (Dec. 18, 1947 – March 4, 2023) and Kitty Cone (April 7, 1944 – March 21, 2015) are often cited as leaders of the historic “504 Sit-In” in 1977. Still, disability rights advocate Ed Roberts also played a crucial role. The first wheelchair user to attend the University of Berkeley, California, Roberts gained renown as the father of the independent living movement, which focuses on self-determination, equal opportunities, and self-respect for people with disabilities.
Born in San Mateo, California in 1939, Roberts contracted polio at 14, forcing him to put his high school education on hold. The disease also left Roberts paralyzed in most of his lower body except for his fingers, and dependent on a respirator or iron lung. His commitment to disability advocacy was spurred by the school’s refusal (despite his strong academic performance) to let him graduate due to being unable to complete his driver’s education and physical education credits, not considering his physical disability. Although Roberts was able to graduate after successfully petitioning the school to grant him his diploma, he would once again encounter prejudice within the educational system when UC Berkeley tried to reverse his acceptance after discovering that he was quadriplegic. According to a retrospective on Roberts’ life by NPS.gov, the university argued that their dorms lacked the space and equipment to accommodate Roberts’ 800-pound iron lung and wheelchair. Once again, Roberts persevered, becoming the university’s first wheelchair-using student. He formed a group of students with disabilities called the Rolling Quads, who pressured UC Berkeley to redesign their classrooms and dorm buildings with greater accessibility for disabled students. The Rolling Quads eventually became the Physically Disabled Students Program, the first college organization for students with disabilities in the United States. In 1972, Roberts established the first Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, an advocacy group designed to help people with physical disabilities live independently. In 1976, Roberts was appointed Director of the California Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, which allowed him to shift policy to provide resources to people with disabilities. In an ironic twist of fate, this was the same organization that several years earlier had deemed Roberts unable to work.
One of the defining moments of Roberts life occurred during the historic “504 Sit In” of 1977, when he joined disability activists Judy Heumann, Phil Newmark, Debby Kaplan, and others in providing powerful, compelling first-hand testimony about the discrimination and lack of accessibility they had experienced as people with disabilities. “I’ve found,” Roberts said in his testimony, “and millions of other people with disabilities are finding, that access, that my ability to move around and that my ability to regain the pride in myself as a person with a disability, is one of the most important things coming out of what’s happening here today.” Roberts added that in his view, “we’re down to the bottom line…are we going to perpetuate segregation in our society? These kinds of issues – civil and human rights – are not issues that people with disabilities can compromise any further.” Ultimately, Roberts and his fellow demonstrators prevailed, as the Section 504 regulations were signed into law, offering greater accessibility and protection against discrimination and laying the groundwork for the passage of the ADA.
Roberts passed away from a heart attack in 1995, at 56. Along with his involvement in the 504 Sit-Ins and the independent living movement, Roberts co-founded the World Institute on Disability, an organization that educates students and has been memorialized with his holiday, Ed Roberts Day, which is held on January 23. Roberts is best summed up in his own words, as quoted by biographer Chris Palames: “The vegetables of the world are uniting, and we’re not going away!… I decided to be an artichoke, prickly on the outside but with a big heart.” Through his work, Roberts contributed significantly to a much more accessible and inclusive society, where people with disabilities can make their voices heard.
- Stella Young
While we’ve covered several disability rights activists who contributed to the passage of the ADA and other historic legislation in decades past, one more recent champion of disability rights was Stella Young (Feb. 24, 1982 – Dec. 6, 2014). An Australian journalist, public speaker, and comedian, Young was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder known as brittle bone disease, and utilized a wheelchair for most of her life. Young first took part in disability advocacy at 14, when she audited the accessibility of her hometown’s main street businesses. She went on to earn a B.A. in Journalism and Public Relations, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Education from the University of Melbourne. Following graduation, she worked as a secondary school teacher, and later as an editor for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s online magazine Ramp Up, which features news, comedy, and discussion for Australia’s disabled community. “I use the term ‘disabled people’ quite deliberately,” Young once said, “because I subscribe to the social model of disability, which tells us that we are more disabled by the society that we live in than by our bodies and our diagnoses.”
Along with her journalistic and educational achievements, Young is best remembered for coining the term “inspiration porn” in a 2012 Ramp Up editorial to describe the trend of turning people with disabilities into objects of inspiration or motivation for non-disabled people, rather than seeing them as human beings and individuals. Young elaborated on this idea in a 2014 TEDx talk, titled “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”. In the presentation, Young explained that she would like to live in a world “where disability is not the exception, but the norm…I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people, that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people…Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does.” Along with her work as an activist, Young was also able to find humor and light-heartedness in living with a disability. She appeared in a number of comedy showcases, and made her solo debut at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2014, where she won the award for best newcomer for her one-woman show Tales from the Crip. In 2017, three years after her untimely passing at 32 years old, Young was posthumously inducted into the Victorian Honor Roll of Women for her work as a “journalist, comedian, feminist and fierce disability activist”, according to Wikiwand.com. You can watch Young’s full TEDx talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K9Gg164Bsw.
- Alice Wong
One of the foremost individuals championing disability rights and representation today is Alice Wong. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1974 to parents who had immigrated from China, Wong is best known as the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project (DVP), which promotes representation by amplifying media and culture centered on people with disabilities. Wong was born with spinal muscular atrophy, which causes muscular atrophy in the body’s trunk due to the breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. She stopped walking at around 7 or 8, and now uses a motorized wheelchair and BPAP machine (an assistive ventilator device), according to Womenshistory.org. In her 20s, while a student at Indiana University, Wong pursued disability rights activism, and studied disability scholarship and history, including the independent living movement in Berkeley, California. As a graduate student, she chaired the Disability Interest Group, which focused on improving the participation of individuals with disabilities in university life.
After graduating, Wong continued pursuing her work in disability advocacy through her more than a decade of work as a Staff Research Associate for the University of California San Francisco (UCSF). In 2013, Wong was appointed to the National Council on Disability by President Barack Obama, serving until 2015. In 2014, she launched the Disability Visibility Project in partnership with StoryCorps, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving, sharing, and recording the stories of Americans of all backgrounds. Through the Disability Visibility Project, Wong hoped to create an oral history, capturing the lived experiences of people with disabilities by recording them sharing their stories. The DVP has since developed into a robust online community, publishing original essays, reports, and blog posts on a wide range of disability-related subjects, partnering with other organizations and activists, organizing and facilitating events, and much more.
Wong’s writing on disability rights issues has been published in numerous media outlets. In 2020, she was recognized by Time as one of 16 noteworthy individuals championing equal rights in America, according to her Women’s History.org bio. Wong’s philosophy challenges misconceptions about people with disabilities, emphasizing their determination and resilience. “Even the notion of “quality of life” as a measurable standard is based on assumptions that a “good” healthy life is one without disability, pain, and suffering,” Wong has said. “I live with all three intimately, and I feel more vital than ever at this point in time because of my experiences and relationships. Vulnerable “high-risk” people are some of the strongest, most interdependent, and most resilient people around.” Wong’s stated dream is “to create a world that is reflective of all of us. This is my life’s work.” Today, she continues to carry out that mission through her work for the disabled and Asian-American communities.
The individuals profiled above are just a few of the exceptional leaders, both past and present, who have revolutionized, and continue to revolutionize, inclusion, representation, and accessibility for millions of Americans with disabilities. Creative Spirit is honored to spotlight those individuals and to do our part in contributing to that effort, especially concerning employment equality. These remarkable individuals demonstrate that courage, determination, and resilience can and do have a huge impact in changing society for the better.