As The Arc Jefferson, Clear Creek & Gilpin Counties approached our 20th year in 1981, we became even more invested in the promotion of community-based living for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) of all ages.
Advocates across the state were brimming with optimism as educational barriers were disappearing quickly in the wake of Colorado’s 1978 adoption of the Federal special education legislation now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This critical legislation would finally require school districts to provide free public education to all children with I/DD, opening doors to lifetime educational and experiential learning that had been sealed for at least a century.
Passing the law didn’t change things overnight, though. The Arc’s staff still had to work constantly to educate local school officials and families about what the law meant and what compliance with the law looked like. We understood that changing the law was only the first step in creating educational rights for students, and that now our work centered largely on leveraging the law to change the attitudes of school employees and the larger community. We embraced the work, though, because we were finally empowered by a law that said unequivocally that students with I/DD had a right to be included in school.
Throughout the 1980s, The Arc’s advocates actively worked to ensure that the law was being followed and that students were given a chance to develop their potential. It wasn’t long before parents and advocates turned a sharp eye to our newly created schools for students with I/DD. Margaret Walters School and Weiland School had opened to much fanfare in 1976, but a new generation of parents began to question whether, per the law, separate schools were truly the “least restrictive environments” for these students: Why shouldn’t they be allowed in classrooms alongside their typical peers? Why shouldn’t they have access to peer learning? Was a segregated environment truly representative of the community at large?
Armed with new questions and a solid legal footing, The Arc’s staff and community began working actively toward a popular new goal – creating full educational inclusion for students with I/DD, a movement often referred to as mainstreaming.
Since the implementation of the law began more than 30 years ago, The Arc – Jefferson, Clear Creek & Gilpin Counties has continuously worked to create increasing degrees of inclusion for students with I/DD. In fact, most new parents today don’t even remember an educational climate that wouldn’t welcome their child. While educational opportunities have changed dramatically over the past three decades, it’s important to remember where we came from and how hard our early supporters worked to lay the groundwork and make things better for each subsequent generation.
The Ripples from Educational Changes
In the 1980s, the ever-expanding set of programsat The Arc and through Community Centered Boards (CCBs), combined with an increasing presence in the schools, suddenly gave parents of children with I/DD more resources at their disposal than ever before. This led directly to more parents choosing to raise their children at home, which in turn led to greater demand for continued improvement in community programs.
The choice to raise a child with I/DD at home was often as difficult to make as the choice to place a child in the state institution. Many community programs were still in their infancy in the early 1980s and unable to meet the diverse needs of all people with I/DD. The Arc focused our efforts on finding those individuals and families who could be best served by existing programs, which led to a decline in placements at the state homes. At the same time, as we identified the limitations of existing programming, we worked to develop and expand programs so that more and more parents had the support they needed to raise their children at home. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a continual focus on shifting the majority of people with developmental disabilities into community living arrangements and away from the state home.
In the summer of 1980, The Arc – Jefferson, Clear Creek & Gilpin Counties hired a new secretary for their Citizen Advocacy program - Jo Lynn Osborne, herself the mother of a young child with cerebral palsy. Shortly after Jo Lynn joined The Arc, we also hired a new Executive Director, Karen Litz. Under Karen’s leadership, Jo Lynn began to develop pioneering programs that have helped thousands of families learn to advocate for their children over the last thirty years, starting with her first parent advocacy group, Parents Reaching Out in 1983. Together these women helped The Arc to build its reputation as the place for families to get information and resources for their children, both young and old.
As we worked to decrease placements in the state home, we also acknowledged that adults with I/DD needed to have a place of their own to live, outside of their family home. We worked with local agencies to develop a robust network of group homes in the community so that adults with I/DD could live on their own in the community. The rise of group homes was not as simple as securing bricks and mortar, as community perception of developmental disabilities created a lot of resistance to obtaining new homes. This created a need for concerted outreach to help shift community perceptions so all residents could welcome their neighbors with developmental disabilities. The Arc responded with numerous highly-visible campaigns to raise awareness of the needs of our community, from Swim-A-Thons to Essay Contests and everything in between.
At the same time, just as the community wasn’t prepared to embrace adults with I/DD living right next door, these adults, many of them young adults, were also unprepared to live in the community. By 1987, we had launched a program called the Live-In Training Experience (LITE), which was a collaborative effort with several organizations to help high school seniors in special education learn the necessary skills to live in the communities after graduation. By all accounts, the LITE program was the first program of The Arc intended to help young adults transition out of high school.
While we were very focused on creating community-based living arrangements for adults with disabilities and encouraging families to raise their children at home, it became obvious that these two residential arrangements didn’t satisfy the needs of all families. In particular, families who had young children with more intensive needs found they could not always meet their child’s needs at home, but they also wanted something less restrictive than placement in the state home. In 1983, The Arc collaborated with several groups to see the opening of the Martin Luther Home in Wheat Ridge, the first group home for children with I/DD.
These were exciting times for The Arc, as each small gain in one arena seemed to create new opportunities in other arenas. Through our efforts to increase educational access for people already living at the State Home and Training School at Ridge, our ties to Ridge leadership and the Ridge chapter of The Arc were strengthened. By 1987, the Ridge Arc voted to merge with The Arc – Jefferson, Clear Creek & Gilpin Counties, creating one strong unit to advocate for all people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our area, regardless of whether they lived in the state home or in the community.
As we reached the close of our third decade, The Arc – Jefferson, Clear Creek & Gilpin Counties was actively expanding opportunities for full community inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities of all ages. We continued working in the schools to improve educational options for students; creating residential options for children and adults and then monitoring them; promoting program expansion at the Community Centered Board; helping the community to embrace people with I/DD and preparing people with I/DD to live in the community; helping employers understand the benefits of hiring people with I/DD and preparing people with I/DD to gain and maintain employment in the community; and supporting the evolving needs of residents at the State Home and Training School at Ridge. We were also working on promising new legislation that would further strengthen the legal and civil rights of people with I/DD, in addition to numerous other legislative initiatives.
In every aspect of life, The Arc was there helping to remove obstacles and create opportunities for all people with I/DD, which is one of the core values that continues to guide us today.