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OBITUARIES / Harlan Hahn, 1939 - 2008

USC professor advocated civil rights, access for disabled

May 10, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Harlan Hahn, a longtime USC professor of political science and champion of disability rights who successfully sued the university to improve access for disabled people campuswide, died April 23 at his Santa Monica home. He was 68.

The cause was a heart attack, said his daughter, Emily.

Hahn was already in the vanguard of the disability rights movement when he joined the USC faculty to teach political science in 1972. He pushed for the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibited discrimination against the disabled, and the more sweeping Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990.

In 1998 he filed a lawsuit against USC to remove physical barriers that limited the mobility of disabled individuals. Hahn, who had polio as a child and used a wheelchair and crutches, brought the suit after having to miss a number of meetings held in buildings that he had difficulty entering. But instead of demanding that the university address only the architectural deficiencies that affected him, he insisted that it eliminate obstacles throughout the campus.

In 2001 the university settled the lawsuit, agreeing to set aside a substantial amount of money each year for barrier removal, eventually budgeting $1 million annually.

The campus is "quite a model now for accessibility," Sid Wolinsky, co-founder and legal director of Disability Rights Advocates, the Berkeley-based advocacy group that represented Hahn, said this week.

He remembered Hahn as "a thinker and a fighter" who tackled issues from a practical as well as a theoretical standpoint. "He was one of the early pioneers who really developed the notion of disability as a civil rights movement" rather than a charity issue, Wolinsky said.

Hahn was born in Osage, Iowa, on July 9, 1939. The only child of teachers, he had an identical twin who died at birth. At 5 he contracted polio and spent the next several years in and out of hospitals. He was 11 when he entered school and devoted himself to education.

"One of the things he believed in was knowledge being powerful and giving a voice. He always was learning," said Emily Hahn, a Costa Mesa resident who will enter a doctoral program this year.

Harlan Hahn earned a bachelor's degree in political science at St. Olaf College in Minnesota before going to Harvard for his master's and doctoral degrees. In 1982 he received a master's in rehabilitation counseling from Cal State L.A., and in 2004 he finished a master's in public health at UCLA. In 1994, he was given a joint appointment at USC's Keck School of Medicine as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

He wrote or co-wrote a dozen books, including "Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of Violence in American Cities" (1973), "Disabled Persons and Earthquake Hazards" (1988) and "Urban America and Its Police" (2003). He retired from USC last year and was working on his memoir.

Hahn had been at USC for more than 20 years when he decided to sue the university. He was tired of being effectively barred from many campus events because of design impediments, such as steps without nearby ramps. In one building, he would have had to use a service elevator and ride alongside crates of vegetables. "He thought that was undignified," recalled Gelya Frank, a USC professor of anthropology and occupational science who had known Hahn since the early 1980s.

Taking on his employer "wasn't comfortable for him," Frank added. "USC is a formidable institution . . . and the professoriate doesn't necessarily have a great deal of power. But he didn't hesitate to take that on."

The settlement not only addressed the need for ramps and elevators but also touched on less obvious issues, such as the lack of Braille markings for the visually impaired and tables that were the wrong height for wheelchair users. His insistence on improving access from one end of USC to the other "essentially revamped the campus over a number of years," Wolinsky said.

No money went to Hahn. "He didn't care about the money aspect," his daughter said. "He was more concerned about people having access. He was always thinking, 'What can I do to make an impact on other peoples' lives?' "

Hahn had demonstrated his commitment to transforming society's view of the disabled when he filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Elizabeth Bouvia case in 1983. Although paralyzed from cerebral palsy, Bouvia, then 26, had married, gone to college and earned a degree. But after a number of setbacks -- including a miscarriage, the collapse of her marriage and a disruption in her career training and the support services that came with it -- she grew despondent and petitioned a court to let her starve to death in a Riverside hospital.

The American Civil Liberties Union championed her case, which became a landmark in the right-to-die movement. Bouvia won the right to control her medical treatment but ultimately abandoned her attempt to die by starvation. She is still alive.

Hahn, along with other disability rights activists, abhorred the message they felt her case sent: that disability could make a life unworthy. He argued that what disabled people needed was help to live, not die.

"Ultimately, a disability is not an organic deficiency," Hahn wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1983, "it is the product of a disabling environment. . . . To deprive any member of the disabled population of the mental and emotional strength that he or she can contribute to others would be an unforgivable act."

A memorial for Hahn is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Thursday in the craft room at Joslyn Park, 633 Kensington Road, Santa Monica. Donations may be sent to Disability Rights Advocates, 2001 Center St., Third Floor, Berkeley, CA 94704.


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