On the Passing of Thomas Gilhool, Esq.

September 2020

Screen of Thomas Gilhool speaking in a Visionary Voices interviewKate Fialkowski, Director of Academic Programs at the Institute on Disabilities at Temple University offers a personal reflection on the passing of Thomas Gilhool, attorney and vocal advocate for people with disabilities in Pennsylvania.

Sadly, we lost one of the most influential contributors to the disability justice movement, Tom Gilhool, Esq. Our family had the great honor of knowing Tom for these fifty years, since the PARC court cases. In 1971, PARC v. The Commonwealth was the first right to education court case in the country. PARC, and the cases that followed were built upon Brown v. Board of Education. PARC opened the door to approximately 26 court cases around the country and ultimately led to PL 94-142 and the right to a free and appropriate education for all. It also established "equal protection" and a due-process precedent. Some of the language from the PARC case became language in the right to education federal law.

At the time of PARC, millions of children were denied an education by school systems across the country for reasons such as "mental age theory." One of the largest areas of dispute in the PARC case was whether the labels "uneducable" and "untrainable" meant children could be denied an education. Without consulting with the family, or a due process hearing, a school psychologist could categorize a 5-year-old in this manner and that was the end of their education and too frequently it meant the beginning of institutionalization.

A small aside: mothers knew their children were educable and in the 1960's (preceding PARC) it was mothers who fought and created one-off demonstration classrooms. For example, in Philadelphia, my mother created the first classroom for children with significant and multiple disabilities. Eleanor Elkin created another classroom in Bucks County, Doylestown.

Professors such as Dr. Lou Brown (University of Wisconsin) and Dr. Ian Pumpian (San Diego State University) had to prove for the courts, through research, that children who were labeled thus could and did learn. Temple's own Ken Thurman was another who testified in these education cases. I remember distinctly how strange it was to have Lou and Ian and so many others researching my brothers, conducting various tests on them. How wrong it was that my brothers, and others, had to earn a right to education.

Every child and family who receive any benefits from "special" education including the "gifted" programs, receive them because of Tom's work. The impact of his work cascaded around the world.

Tom was an extraordinarily gracious person. Intelligent, kind, and generous. He was a legal historian and anyone who heard him speak was treated to a history lesson. He contributed so much to the lives and liberty of people with intellectual disabilities.

For more info about Tom, The Public Interest Law Center shared a wonderful collection of highlights of Tom's career on their website.

Also, here at Temple:

Tom's papers were donated to Temple's archives as part of a larger collection of right to education papers including Dennis Haggerty, Leona Fialkowski, and others. This collection is under the stewardship of Margery Sly, Director of the Special Collections Research Center.

Interviews with Tom can be found within the Visionary Voices story collection project at the Institute on Disabilities.

Our family is greatly saddened by the world's loss of such a good man. May we long remember his work and this important history.

Kate Fialkowski
Director, Academic Programs
Adjunct Faculty and Advisor, Disability Studies Graduate Certificate
Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, College of Education and Human Development
Disability Studies at Temple University

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