BY GEORGE HOEHMANN
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a lion of a person and had an outsized impact upon our nation and world. As a result of his inspiring leadership, substantial change occurred. His work endures today, but was codified in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which made it illegal to discriminate against anyone based upon race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It was a watershed moment and one that served as the foundation for a society where, as Dr. King dreamed, people are “judged on the content of their character” alone and not on the way they appear.
As big a moment as that was, people with disabilities were not technically included in the law and frankly were left out. This was certainly not through any fault of Dr. King but due to the shortsightedness of some of the political leaders at the time. The fight for legal inclusion for people with disabilities continued through the next three decades. Indeed it continues to this day. Many people are unaware of how inspirational Dr. King was in the disability rights movement.
The original leaders of that movement, Edward Roberts and Justin Dart were two men from diverse backgrounds who developed polio in the 1940’s. Both were paralyzed by the disease and faced insidious discrimination. Roberts and Dart both enrolled in school in the 1960’s and began their own civil rights struggle. They both followed the example Dr. King set by his use of peaceful nonviolent protests. They worked tirelessly for nearly twenty five years until the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. This civil rights movement led to the deinstitutionalization of persons with developmental disabilities, culminating with the closure of places like Willowbrook, Letchworth and literally hundreds of similar places across our country. The movement also led to the creation of programs and residences that uphold people’s dignity, afford them the same opportunities and rights of all people—allowing them to become productive members of society.
As we take time to think about Dr. King and the life he led, we should also think of people like Ed Roberts and Justin Dart and the thousands of others who struggled to break down barriers. It should inspire all of us to make sure that we do what we can to ensure that the people we encounter in our own lives are treated fairly and with dignity.