In Memoriam: Harlan Hahn, 68

The USC College political scientist was a major force in the disability rights movement.
Pamela J. Johnson

Harlan D. Hahn, activist and leading authority on disability rights, and a faculty member in USC College for 35 years, has died. He was 68.

Hahn, professor of political science specializing in American and urban politics, died after a heart attack on April 23 in his Santa Monica home, said his only child, Emily Hahn.

“My dad had a great passion for helping the disadvantaged,” Hahn, 29, of Irvine, said. “He cared about people. He was an amazingly smart, smart man. But the funny thing was, he didn’t think he was smart.”

Hahn, who had a joint appointment in the Keck School of Medicine of USC as a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, earned his master’s and doctorate at Harvard University and authored or co-authored about a dozen books. They included Pulitzer Prize-nominated Ghetto Revolts: The Politics of Violence in American Cities (The Macmillan Co., 1973), Disabled Persons and Earthquake Hazards (University of Colorado Institute of Behavioral Science, 1988) and Urban America and Its Police: From the Postcolonial Era through the 1960s (The University Press of Colorado, 2003).

He wrote hundreds of articles and editorials about heath politics and policies, criminal justice policy, and urban issues and politics for professional journals, books and major metropolitan newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times.

Hahn left USC in 2007. He had been writing his memoir when he died.

“Harlan Hahn’s death is an enormous loss because of his international reputation on disability research and his activism,” said Ann Crigler, chair and professor of political science in the College. “He was also a very well-known researcher in American and urban politics in general. He was one of our department’s most prolific, highly-cited and distinguished professors.”

Gelya Frank, professor of anthropology in the College, and professor of occupational science and occupational therapy, recalled arriving at USC in the early 1980s, when Hahn and junior faculty members were developing the university’s first disability studies program.

At that time Hahn was also involved in a famous right-to-die case in which quadriplegic Elizabeth Bouvia had sued a California hospital refusing her request to starve to death.

Hahn had filed an amicus brief with the California Supreme Court, arguing against the woman’s wish to die and urging society to better support the disabled. Bouvia eventually lost the case and later decided she wanted to live.

“I recognized that what Harlan was doing was exciting and important,” Frank said. “He was on the front lines of the shift in political thinking about the disabled. Rather than disability as a private medical matter, he believed in treating the disabled as a minority group that deserved rights.”

Hahn pushed for the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, a wider-ranging civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on disabilities, his friends said.

“We wouldn’t have these laws without people like Harlan,” Frank said. “We have to see Harlan Hahn as one of the major figures in the disability rights movement.”

Born July 9, 1939, in Osage, Iowa, Harlan Hahn had an identical twin who died at birth and he grew up as an only child, Emily Hahn said. His parents were teachers. At age 5 he contracted polio and spent the next six years in and out of hospitals. He entered school at 11 and used a wheelchair most of his life.

Before entering Harvard, Hahn earned his bachelor’s magna cum laude at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He was a perpetual student, earning two additional master’s degrees — an M.S. in 1982 from California State University, Los Angeles, and an M.P.H. in 2004 from UCLA.

“Education was really, really important to him,” said Emily Hahn, who is earning her master’s degree in psychology at California State University, Long Beach. “He tried to do the best in helping people who didn’t have access to an education or to health care get opportunities. He wanted people in disadvantaged situations to have a voice.”

At times Hahn’s activism hit closer to home. In 1998 Hahn filed a suit against USC, claiming that the University Park campus had numerous physical barriers preventing disabled people from equal access to structures. As a result of a settlement in the case, the university has steadily increased its budget for removing such barriers.

“My dad was a real fireball,” Emily Hahn said. “If I accomplish half of what my dad did in his life, I’ll be happy.”

Judy Garner, associate provost for faculty development, created a stem cell research ethics course with Hahn.

“I appreciated working with him,” said Garner, an associate professor in the Keck School. “He broadened my perspective on how stem cell work has become a political force, and how the development of this research area has resulted in conversations about ethical dilemmas that really need airing.”

Longtime friend Gerald Caiden, professor in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, remembered Hahn as a complex and tireless man whose “mind bubbled over with ideas.”

“When I heard of his death, I immediately felt a loss,” Caiden said. “Never again would I hear his unmistakable voice, ‘Ah, Gerald, how nice of you to phone. Listen, I have this new idea I want to try on you …’ ”

A memorial for Hahn will take place May 15 at 8:30 p.m. inside the craft room in Joslyn Park, 633 Kensington Road, Santa Monica. In lieu of flowers, donations may go to the Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley.

For questions about the memorial, e-mail