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NCD Honors the Life and Legacy of Major Owens

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Oct. 23, 2013

WASHINGTON, DC – Former Brooklyn Representative Major Owens, who considered his role in helping pass the Americans with Disabilities Act as one of the finest accomplishments of his 24 year tenure in Congress, passed away Monday, October 21. He was 77.

Owens, a former librarian who went to Congress from Brooklyn and stayed there for 24 years was an unapologetic crusader for the working-class and other progressive causes. He rose up NYC’s political ranks after serving under Mayor John Lindsay as the head of the Community Development Agency. Owens quickly became a leading figure in the New York’s Democratic Party and served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 2007. He is survived by his wife, Maria Owens, and five children.

While Owens is often hailed as a champion on education, he was also instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).

“One thing I will always remember about Congressman Owens’ leadership was his commitment to inclusion–he was an “all means all” kind of person,” said NCD Executive Director Rebecca Cokley. “When the disability community would find itself divided, Major Owens was one of those legislators that would remind people about the importance of strength in numbers and the need to be a voice for each other’s issues.”

In an interview with Josie Byzek in Mouth Magazine in 1998, Owens stressed the interconnectedness of disability and other civil rights struggles when passing the ADA. 

” The strategy was to link it to civil rights,” said Owens. “It was the best route to get folks to understand segregation fast. Civil rights and women’s rights had a clear history. Making the transition to rights for people with disabilities became easier because we had the history of the other two.”

Almost immediately following Justin Dart’s run as Commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration in the late 1980’s, which was cut short due to Dart’s refusal to yield on core principles of independent living, Owens asked Justin to serve on a Congressional Task Force and hold forums across the nation to shine a spotlight on often hidden discrimination faced by Americans with disabilities. In doing so, Owens handed Dart a golden opportunity to drum up grassroots, nationwide support for the ADA. 

“There would be no civil rights without empowerment,” remarked Justin Dart at the successful completion of the task force. “Congressman Owens has consistently articulated this to us and backed up his words with action.  This Task Force is evidence of it and perhaps, more importantly, the way he has dealt with it, always backing us up and never leaning over our shoulder paternalistically, but insisting that this Task Force be the embodiment of empowerment that he intended.” Dart passed away in 2002.

When asked to put Owens legacy in context, Yoshiko Dart, who survived Justin and continues their work today, echoed her husband’s earlier sentiment.

“Major Owens knew empowerment was essential in passing the ADA,” said Yoshiko. “So we made it the foundation of our tour. The disability community’s success in passing the ADA would not have been possible without the opportunity, encouragement or support that Major Owens gave us. His contributions to advancing disability rights cannot be overstated.”

An official website of the National Council on Disability