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WASHINGTON (AP) _ Justin Dart Jr., an activist who for more than five decades worked in his wheelchair to champion the cause of people with disabilities, died in Washington Saturday at age 71.

Dart was regarded among the fathers of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the landmark 1990 civil rights law for the disabled, and in 1998 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Clinton.

``He was one of our country's greatest warriors in the fight for civil rights for people with disabilities,'' said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. ``He was a friend of mine, and I will miss him very much.''

Born in Chicago in 1930, Dart contracted polio in 1948 and used a wheelchair since then. He began working for the disabled from that time, when he was a student at the University of Houston, and went on to become chairman of the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities in the Reagan administration.

That appointment came after Dart quit as commissioner of the Education Department's rehabilitation agency after he complained in testimony to Congress about the government's ``paternalistic attitudes about disability.''

In 1990 he received the first pen used by former President Bush at the signing ceremony for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Dart founded and was chief executive of Japan Tupperware Inc. His father, the late Justin Dart, was a California industrialist and close friend of President Reagan.

Dart is survived by his wife Yoshiko and five daughters. His niece, Mari Dart, said the family plans a private memorial service to be followed by a large celebration on July 26, the 12th anniversary of the ADA.

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On the Net: Americans with Disabilities Act: http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/ada/adahom1.htm