Justin Dart — Disability Pioneer Continues To “Lead On”

Circa 2010


“When a good dream comes true you want to shout it out to the world,” said Matrix Theatre Company partner and volunteer Janice Fialka. After two years of planning, the Matrix Theatre Company and volunteers in its surrounding community of Southwest Detroit began construction of a giant puppet of Justin Dart, a man often called the “father” of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Although the ADA was signed into law 20 years ago on July 26, few people know of Dart or of his role in its success. By spearheading a creative project to memorialize Dart and engage a community, the Matrix Theatre Company hopes to change that fact.

In early March, Matrix Theatre members and volunteers carried art supplies and molds of the Justin Dart puppet head and hands to the Roberto Clemente Recreation Center. Once there, volunteers placed photos of Dart and his beloved widow, Yoshiko, on a sign-in table to encourage staff, families and youth to get involved in the project. Of specific interest was the possibility of engaging local youth, with and without disabilities, to join in the “Matrix way” of creative collaboration.

It worked. When Amanda Stahl, a Detroit disability activist, rolled into the art room, she immediately noticed that her wheelchair fit perfectly under the table which held the giant puppet head of Justin Dart. Stahl was able to dig her hands right into the clay, keenly aware that the organizers had thought of this adaptation when planning the project. Stahl admitted she is especially excited because the puppet is designed to be controlled by people who use wheelchairs.

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Sculptor Carl Goines and puppetmaker Meghan Harris were joined by local youth, community residents and volunteers who spent many hours learning about Dart as they sculpted his hat and created buttons for his jacket. Goines carefully instructed young volunteers to keep the tape tight as they wrapped it around the hands and head of the puppet.” Ana, a six-year-old volunteer, balanced the large puppet’s hand in her own tiny hand and looked up at Goines for reassurance: “Like this? Am I doing it right?”

“Perfect,” Goines said as he handed scissors to Tyrone, a young volunteer who was eager to help shape the face of the puppet. At another table, Michael, a young volunteer covered in a paint-splotched apron, massaged pieces of hard clay with water to soften it for use on the puppet’s ear. Once the clay was ready, the kids cheered and leaped over each other to be the first ones to slap it onto the head of the puppet.

As they continued working, several of the children clamored to have their photos taken with the puppet’s head and hands, eager to show their families their fine work as artists. As Fialko educated the students about Dart and the Americans with Disabilities Act, she struggled to explain things in a way that would best grab the attention of young minds. Suddenly, she thought of curb cuts. “Pretty soon, you’ll be riding your bikes, right? You know when you come to the end of a sidewalk and there is no curb?”

The kids were listening. “The curb needs to be cut in a certain way so that people who use wheelchairs can roll easily onto the street and not get stuck,” Fialko continued, “or so they don’t have to bump themselves down the curb.

Sculptor Carl Goines shows volunteer Amanda Stahl how to create the details that bring the sculpture to life.

“My Uncle Sam is in a wheelchair,” shouted Kyle, a young volunteer who was suddenly engaged in the conversation, “and he sometimes gets real mad because he can’t get through a door.” From there, conversation took off, the children all talking about how people feel when they aren’t treated fairly. As if remembering her school lesson, Ana chimed in with, “Martin Luther King had to fight to get civil rights for African Americans.”

“Yes, that’s what Justin Dart and many other people had to do,” Fialko said. “They worked hard, traveled around the country and talked to a lot of people in every state. They had marches and protests, and eventually got the ADA passed. That was the civil rights law for people with disabilities.”

Until that afternoon, Justin Dart was not someone any of these youth knew about. Now, he was literally a familiar face. While the children had fun with the clay, they also talked openly about what it takes to create a world in which all people belong, in which buildings and buses are accessible, and in which everyone realizes that fairness for all is possible.

“It’s been inspiring to watch as this diverse group of people works together to bring the puppet to life,” said Matrix Founder and Executive Director Shaun Nethercott. “One of Justin’s wishes was to be known as a unifier, and that is exactly what is happening with the building of this project. People are sharing stories, having fun, being creative, and reminding each other that it is up to all of us to build a world where we all belong.”

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“Interest in the Justin Dart puppet is nationwide,” said Volunteer Coordinator Ken Srdjak. “Donations have come in from all over the country. We have even received money from Justin’s wife, family, friends and disability activists. If this continues, I am confident we can reach our fundraising goal which will allow us to tour the puppet throughout the country this summer.”

“It’s time that Justin Dart and his ideas become visible to all,” said Rich Feldman, Matrix partner and volunteer. “It’s time that disability is recognized as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity.”

Tom Olin, a photojournalist for the disability movement since 1983, was excited about the creative way in which Justin’s vision and spirit are being communicated through the building of the puppet. “Sometimes it happens that an image or a piece of art can reconnect a community with a fallen soldier’s classic one-liners that ‘lead us on’ to commit ourselves to ‘the revolution of empowerment.’ The Justin puppet will be looming in the streets, shouting out the words, ‘I am with you, I love you, lead on,’ for the solidarity among all who love justice.”

Though often called the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the disability civil rights movement, Justin Dart thought of himself in much more humble terms. Born August 29, 1930 into a wealthy and prominent family, he was a self-described “super loser.” Spoiled and difficult, Dart attended seven high schools without graduating from any of them. After contracting polio in 1948, he went on to earn bachelor and master’s degrees in political science and history, and used a wheelchair until his death in 2002.

After being denied a teaching certificate because he used a wheelchair, Dart went into business in 1956 and in later years hired people with disabilities, giving them a living wage within his companies. Working with President Ronald Reagan, Dart helped to draft a national policy which called for a national civil rights legislation to end the centuries-old discrimination of people with disabilities. This legislation eventually became the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Although he received many awards—including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton—Dart never wavered in his commitment to disability solidarity and insisted that all people with disabilities be protected by the law, including those with mental illness and people with HIV/AIDS. “I am a symbolic representative of thousands of ADA mothers and fathers,” Dart was often known to say.

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Dart never hesitated to emphasize the community of support that made his work possible. His work was never about him but instead about the community working together to advance human dignity for all. Dart’s wife of 33 years has enthusiastically given full support to using the puppet as a creative way to educate, inspire, and empower others.

According to Nethercott, the Matrix Theatre Company is one of only a handful of theatre arts organizations in the country to create giant puppets. The Justin Dart construction will take its place among the impressive collection of historically significant “hero” puppets, which includes such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, Mother Jones and Ella Baker. “I think Justin Dart would be proud of this effort,” Nethercott said.

Now in the final stages of creation, the Justin Dart puppet will be completed in time to take its place at the US Social Forum, at which more than 20,000 people will come together in Detroit. The puppet will be used in ADA rallies and celebrations in Washington, DC, as well as in many state-sponsored events. Matrix has submitted a grant application to fund a small theatre troupe which will accompany the puppet on its journey to raise awareness of disability issues throughout the country.

The Justin Dart puppet is funded, in part, by Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Michigan Disabilities Rights Coalition, the United Auto Workers, as many individual donors from across the country.

Matrix Theatre Company is a non-profit community-based theatre located in Southwest Detroit. Established in 1991, it creates all of its projects from scratch—including puppets of all sizes and over 95 original plays. Matrix Theatre Company uses the transformative power of theatre to change lives, build community and foster social justice. It creates opportunities for children and adults, especially those in isolated or challenged communities, to become creators, producers and audiences of original theatre.

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For the past three years, Matrix Theatre Company has committed to creating an inclusive theatre experience for people with and without disabilities. All activities at the theater are orchestrated to best ensure accessibility. “The Justin Dart giant puppet is Detroit’s contribution to creating a truly inclusive social movement,” Nethercott said, “that empowers each of us to change ourselves and our world.

by Kathryn Brennan


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