In 1951, a group of Detroit parents organized as advocates for their children with intellectual impairments and other developmental disabilities. They talked about opening doors for their children. Doors that would provide them with education, with job opportunities, with housing options.
But this group, like others springing up around the United States, did more than just talk -- it acted. That's why over 60 years later, citizens from Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park with intellectual impairments and other developmental disabilities attend public school, sign up for programs to teach them job skills and, in many cases, hold jobs. Freed from institutional living, they are creating their own homes. The momentum started by those parents 64 years ago continues.
Advocates for persons with intellectual impairments and other developmental disabilities sometimes feel frustrated by the long path stretching ahead of them. The system is still far from perfect. But today's advocate in the greater Detroit area are building on an astonishing base, the gift left by that small group of parents who had an idea. The hard fight of the last 52 years has cleared the path for the energetic work still ahead. This is the proud legacy of The Arc Detroit.
A Half Century of Achievements
A national movement was already brewing in 1950 when the American Association on Mental Deficiency held its convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But is was at that Midwest meeting than an unexpected seed for action was planted. At that gathering, parents and friends of persons with disabilities organized to from the National Association for Retarded Children, an entity that would eventually become a non-profit powerhouse.
It was a time when parents were urged to depend on the "experts" -- on doctors, teachers, politicians, event through the messages they heard from those experts often contradicted their own experiences as parents. But the unveiling of the National Association for Retarded Children served at the catalyst to change all that. The formation of the non-profit in Minneapolis sparked parents to empower themselves and band together in local organizations. Eventually, these organizations would blanked the United States. But, at the beginning, they were few in number. And one of the first found its home in Detroit.
In the Motor City, a small group of parents whose children had developmental disabilities began to meet. Their goal? To secure opportunities for their children. The meetings provided the parents with needed support, but they were not enough. These parents wanted more.
WIth a charter under its belt and incorporated in Michigan as a non-profit organization, the Greater Detroit Parents Association for Mentally Retarded Children held it first official meeting on March 4, 1952. At 8 p.m. that evening, parents gathered at an office on Grand River Avenue in Detroit. A week later, they met again -- this time at the Veteran's Memorial Building in Detroit. By the time they left that meeting, they had drafted bylaws, elected officers and determined the direction of the organization. Fittingly, the quartet that led the charge to for the non-profit also ended up as its officers. Weld S. Maybee was elected president, Fred Anderson vice president, Sara Mittledorf secretary and Fred C. Weissel assumed the post as treasurer. The organization had a $1000 budget.
The association drafted a carefully considered mission. "The purposes for which this corporation is formed are...to promote the general welfare of mentally retarded children of all ages everywhere: at home, in the communities, in the institutions and in public, private and religious schools. To further the advance of all ameliorative and preventative study, research and therapy in the field of mental retardation. To encourage the formation of parent's groups, to advise and aid in the solution of their problems and to coordinate the efforts and activities of these groups. To further the implementation of legislation on behalf of the mentally retarded; to serve as a clearing house of gathering and disseminating information regarding the mentally retarded, and to foster the development of integrated programs on their behalf. And to solicit and receive funds for the accomplishment of the above purposes."
The wording of that mission has been modified over the years, but the intentions have not.
The Greater Detroit Parents Association for mentally retarded children wasted no time. The same year it formed, it sponsored an adult training course and a dance. It launched a day camp program and, in late October, it opened a recreation center. Then next year, it became even more ambitious. A summer camp -- designed to become an annual offering -- debuted. Family Fun Nights joined the calendar.
In 1954, the same year as the organization changed its name to The Detroit Association for Retarded Children, it moved to permanent offices at 7310 Woodward Avenue, in Detroit's Boulevard Building. Parents relied on the Association "consulting center" for guidance and information.
Programming was an important goal of the organization. It helped open a nursery school program at Tau Beta in 1955. Within a year, that expanded to become a kindergarten program. In 1956, the first two DARC students were proudly enrolled at the Jewish Vocational Services for an appraisal on their employment options. United Fund began providing grant money.
The decades that followed were jammed with achievements...establishment in 1958 of the Anna M. Engel Scholarship Fund for Special Education Programs...the awarding of funds for research projects on mental retardation at Wayne State University...the appearance of the VOICE newsletter...formation of a parent unit at Wayne County Training School. In 1960, a representative from the Israeli Ministry of Social Welfare attended a DARC meeting to discuss her country's day-care centers aimed at providing training for persons with developmental disabilities. In 1966, the DARC helped develop the Wayne County Council for the Retarded (which later became the Wayne County Association for the Retarded).
DARC opened in 1970 by increasing its dues -- to $4.00 for a single membership and $6.00 for a family. The same year, Detroit became the first Arc in the country to receive public funding (through a Model Cities grant program) to start a hot lunch program. And it was also in 1970 that the DARC became instrumental in lobbying for the mandatory Special Education Act introduced in the Michigan Legislature. Its later passage, an unprecedented achievement, put Michigan at the forefront of Special Education in the country.
By then DARC had purchased the building it has called home for more that forty years. The Association was discussing issues such as guardianship and group homes and it had become savvy about tapping into federal and state monies for projects. Soon, the DARC's Family Resource Center was passing along its knowledge to families. Anyone with questions about changes in aid to the disabled through the government's Supplemental Security Income program knew just who to phone, the DARC.
There have been ups and downs in the intervening years. The passage of the American with Disabilities Act, a monumental landmark, is one of the brightest accomplishments. Still, struggles over government funding, housing alternatives, and discrimination remain. But The Arc and its members are not easily daunted. Its 64 year legacy will become a 70 year legacy and an 80 year legacy...and will continue until all individuals with intellectual impairments and other developmental disabilities live with greatest freedom, greatest level of challenges and greatest range of choice appropriate.
As former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt so sagely noted, "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." The Arc Detroit continues to believe in its Dream.