By Joe Harcz, Michigan Advocate with Disabilities
I did not know the great Justin Dart well. In fact I only met him a few times personally, or encountered him during some ADAPT actions or NFB or other functions. We didn’t always agree on issues when we met though. In fact he was much more to the right of what I was then and decidedly am now. Actually the first or maybe second time I heard him literally speak, though I had aired his tapes on my radio reading service for the blind in Manchester, New Hampshire and read his writings, I thought him a whim compared to Bob Kafka, who was often with Justin in those days and venues. It was not because Justin was lesser than I. Guess it was because Justin was older and slower at the time and Bob was the more dynamic personality. Still Justin always could hold a crowd and even those of the National Federation of the Blind at Washington Seminars were enthralled. I was so, regardless as to pecking orders of radicalism.
They were heady days for me in my early forties, fast off a divorce and with increasing notions of both familial, to my disabled daughter, and still escalating notions of social justice and disability rights in the hot afternoon of the passage of the ADA in 1990. Nothing like mixing an average white guy with notions of both personal empowerment over increasing disabilities combined with a conventional mid-life crisis, on steroids to make things interesting.
Still, oh, that Holiday Inn Capitol looms ever present in both my days in the ‘90’s with both NFB and ADAPT and recollections of Justin, but more importantly my resurrection as an advocate for justice for people with disabilities. It was a sense I felt hard and fast years before as a young activist for civil rights in general and against oppression and the Vietnam War in particular. Guess I was just a radical about to happen in another form as my disabilities expanded or exploded or became much more profound, and as I continued to expand my nature and notion as a person with disabilities. I don’t know for sure where one thing ended and the other continued. I’m becoming an ancient soul after all and recollections are collections of broken fragments of youth and middle age run around like bumper cars on steroids and then exploded and then set afire only to be quick frozen and then later to be retrieved from the freezer of the mind and melted in to a sort of cool reality. I like mine with hot fudge, not that sort of sickly Hershey’s chocolate syrup, thank you! And real whipped cream. Screw that “Cool Whip” crap.
Regardless, I did have some time to talk with him shortly before he died and again we weren’t intimate like so many, but rather simply comrades at the barricades. I am old now and forget the year, but it was in the late nineties and we talked at some length at literally the White House gates during an ADAPT action. Justin was old and dying. He was on his last wheels and not his last legs. He was seen by me literally as I still had some vision at the time, though legally blind and limited as it was I saw something in his face and this wasn’t a contrived thing. It was something that stuck with me to this day. You know I was legally blind and I still can’t remember the freaking year, but dammit I saw, literally saw for some damned reason something in his eyes.
You know what I saw in this goodly man’s face? This man who had his flaws as all men do and who was shortly about to die while those a bit younger engaged in direct action and pledged battles for full rights for everyone with disabilities?
Well, I remind all that I’m a socialist and I am personally an agnostic, before I say this, but the reality’s true and metaphor speaks the truth louder. I saw in this old man’s eyes, through eyes legally blind and going blinder, and while literally handcuffed to the gate of the White House this:
I saw quite simply the eyes of Moses. I saw in the eyes of Justin Dart someone who fought for the “Promised Land” of full inclusion, but one who wouldn’t realize it in his lifetime.
He died not too long after that.
Regardless, as mystical as it was, he laid upon me and my generation a legacy. That was to reach that “Promised Land”.
It isn’t a Jewish land, or a Christian land or a Muslim land, etc. But the metaphor was in Justin’s eyes. The Moses metaphor of the one leading us out of the wilderness and into a reality that was freedom from bondage; the bondage of exclusion, discrimination, and actual suffering of people with disabilities.
In his eyes I literally saw hope for a brighter future with pride in our worth over the “crippling” impact of the mindset of the temporarily able bodied.
In his tired eyes I saw the aspirations of our futures and the sadness of the past discriminations blended beautifully in a tableau of humility mixed with multiple colors of resistance along with faint impressionism of painted tolerance for the bigots amongst us. His eyes exploded Goya, Monet and Van Gogh all at the same time to me. His body was barely alive and yet his eyes lit up the Washington skyline full of promise and hope and new beginning for all of us with disabilities. All in those yearning years of promise in the early formation of the ADA and its ideals, so often lost nowadays so sadly; still in those eyes….Still in those haunting eyes that spur me on….
So ironic for a blind man or one legally so at the time, to know this man whom I was not intimate with over decades like so many others but whom I could see in to his soul through his eyes and our common experience, which was all about liberation and freedom.
Those tired, sad, but also hopeful eyes….
He wore them like a sword in its scabbard and he wore his eyes like a dove.
I wear his eyes like a cloak against the bitter wind of oppression that chills me; my sisters and brothers to our collective souls in these, the collective winters of discontent. Moses eyes hold me fast upon my course towards liberation of not me, but all of humanity; white, black, Asian, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhists, atheist, agnostic; man, woman and child, gay or straight; and most certainly all variations between abilities and so-called disabilities…
Those haunting eyes full of tragedy and hope instruct me to this day.
He is long gone in reality, but in this 25th anniversary of the ADA he lives on in his eyes and in my mind’s eye, quite literally. He and others like him….Youngsters should know the names and recite them…
Another day perhaps for that lesson…
Oh, so bittersweet those moments though, lost in the eyes and the promise of Moses. I am cradled at my darkest moments in those eyes, thoughtful, solemn, bright, contemplative and hopeful all at the same time.
I, for one shall not forget, and I for one pass the moment on to you who are not of that generation as a spark to your torch. Carry on and remember, blind or not the promise of Moses held in those eyes.