Chapter 3: Allegheny County ARC, Parent Protests, Right to Education
10:04:22:14 - 10:06:45:10
Lisa: What did you hope to accomplish at the Allegheny ARC?
Chuck: By that time you got to remember when that was 1969 it was a lot of social unrest in the whole country. When I came to ARC in those days they had four sheltered workshops, only one of which was even remotely in a building that was acceptable. One was on a third floor, the other was in a basement; anyways so, the obvious first thing was to get better facilities and that was the first objective.
But, then it became very clean to me that the organization needed more than that, and what emerged then was the idea that the local ACR, by the extension of all ACRs were a marginalized, the retarded member anyways, was a marginalized member of society not unlike the Afro-Americans.
And so at some point, I would like to say that I looked forward and saw this and envisioned it, but I didn't ...just kind of stumbled into it and said, "This is a minority we have to adopt a lot of the same tactics that the black folk are doing. And so, we started picketing, went to court a lot, and a...and a the organization...the county director at that point was a guy by the name of George Low, who had been a calling on the Mental Health/ Mental Retardation study at Harrisburg and we were great friends, but we ended up having some stress and tension because the money...the money was going to mental health and to a mental retardation. Later on it was cauterized MH and MR, which probably didn't help the situation any because than you didn't have any flexibility, but anyway that was the issue was to see this as an advocacy organization unlike the NAACP.
Lisa: When I think of the Civil Rights Movement and what African Americans were doing to claim their civil rights. You said you were also developing some of the same tactics including picketing...
Lisa: So I'm wondering what those first pickets looked like, who was involved, where were you picketing and for what reason?
Chuck: We were picketing the state office building it was the day after Thanksgiving 1969, it was very, very cold.
The thing I remember about the picketing, I use to have a picture I wish I still did, of a woman by the name of Roseanne Graham who's still in the field, walking carrying a sign saying "We're Not Wading, We're Drowning" and we were picketing the state office. But, we picked that day because that was a big downtown shopping day, there is no big shopping day anymore.
But anyway, picked that day it was very, very cold, there was another woman on the picket line her whose husband was probably second tier in the United States Steel, she was picketing in a mink coat, I remember that very, very fondly, but that was the first time we did it.
10:09:56:01 - 10:11:07:18
Lisa: Were people using the same tactics in other parts of the country or do you....
Chuck: Far as I know... Far as I know we were the first, and as far as I know we may have been the only that developed those tactics. We had...I hired a guy by the name of Wayne Hanson, and Wayne was a trained community organizer had studied under a guy named of Saul Lindski, and Saul Lindski was the guru of community organizing in those days. And Wayne had the job of going out around to the...when the Mental Health/Mental Retardation Act was put into effect the city, counties, city and counties together was divided into ten service districts. And his job was to get a parent group going in each one of their service districts to assure that the metal retarded districts got their due.
So, we did the community work thing, we did picket thing, the letter writing campaigns, the whole shtick.
10:11:07:24 - 10:12:28:13
Lisa: What do you think was the result of all those efforts?
Chuck: I think from our point of view it was very, very successful it made the organization much more aggressive. From that grew out, I'd like to think, they fact that the local ARC took the lead in going around the cit...state, I'm sorry not the city, the state closing...there were like auxiliary private institutions call "PLF" (Private Licensed Facilities). Most of those PLF's were pretty grim; one exception was McGuire Home in Beaver County the nuns ran for very, very involved children.
Anyway, so the local ARC took the lead in closing them, I mean, in Wilkes-Barre, Grant area, all over.
And again, it was the women who did that, as far as I remember the only male that was ever involved was a staffer by the name of Bob Nelkin, who now runs United Way in Allegheny County.
10:12:30:15 - 10:15:30:00
Lisa: You're talking I think about all of these forces that conspired to sort of strengthen the parent movement in Pennsylvania to add sort of fuel to that movement. The Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children, as I think it was called at the time, had a huge victory in Right to Education.
Lisa: In 1972.
Chuck: Right. That was really, really as you said a huge victory. It was a victory that then resonated over to the mental health side and eventually to all handicapped. And what it did was essentially say that the law, which said at that point, you the parent do not have to start your child until age 8. And at the other end, you may leave school at 16, but you don't have to leave until 21.
So, it was all in the interpretation of the law, course the education administrators were translating the law to the advantage of the school. They didn't have to address the more handicapped kids and it could force kids out at age 16; made a major, major difference.
At the vocal level when those kids started it enabled us to take the money that was going to the 5,6,7, 8 year old and move it down to a younger population and a...and a reduce the class size.
Now, the reality is that the people who stayed in after age 16 tended to be the more involved kids.
When I got into Special Ed you had the trainable mentally retarded they were the most involved kids, they were the ones that didn't get into school until the age 8, and then we had what we called the educate able retarded and they were the kids I worked with, but in large they were squeezed out at age 16.
And by-the-by just as in the institutions were people that didn't belong there; my class of 12, 4 or 5 of them were not mentally retarded they had sever hearing losses, sight losses, speech and had been labeled mentally retarded, but they were relatively high functioning, they were in Special Ed.
I had...I remember this one little girl who was 14 or 15 and told all the students in the parochial school that she went to public high school and the kids in the public high school she went to a parochial in diverging to avoid that stigma.
10:15:38:25 - 10:18:00:00
Lisa: I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about your professional relationship with Bob [Nelkin], and about what...what he was doing to help the parents, empower parents to further investigate the conditions of institutions, ICF/MRs, etc.?
Chuck: Bob... I hired Bob in 1971 or '72... I mentioned earlier a guy by the name of Wayne Hanson; Bob worked directly under Wayne, and when Wayne left, Bob became the community organizer. Bob, then and now, has a very high sense of morality, what is right and what is wrong.
But, to answer your question what did he do?
He was the staffer who worked with the mothers, who went around the state closing the private licensed facilities. And he won't acknowledge this, but at least on one occasion he got a death threat.
Now remember, if you're closing the place where people are working they take that with some umbrage at that, and this was in the coal mine region and jobs were not plentiful.
And I remember there was one guy that ran IC...the PLF there who literally if you had to invent a villain, he looked like "Damn Yankees" Lucifer and drove a pink Cadillac, so he fit the bill.
But, Bob was the guy that did the staff work for the mothers...primarily mothers, who did that...went to the institutions, went to the PLF's.
And by-the-by and locally too I mentioned how he tried to put together a parents group in each of the 10 Catchment areas, that fell to him too after Wayne left; he did an excellent job.
10:18:00:08 - 10:19:23:22
Lisa: Why was it important that parents be part of this investigation?
Chuck: Well first of all, it gave them some credibility that nobody else would have.
Why did Bob go with them? You needed staff support very often and somebody that could go around and take a look and say, here's a place we ought to look at. But, I don't want to minimize Bob's role, but I have to emphasize how important it was that the parents were there. I...there was a woman her name was Barbara Sysistic, whose daughter, I think it was daughter, was not in any of those institutions, but there was a confrontation with under deputy, secretary or something-or-another from the Department of Welfare, and he leaned across the table and said, "You're not playing fair." And Barbara's response was, "We're not playing at all."
So, that was the energy level among the a...among the moms and woman.
Bob did not having to motivate them, he had to facilitate, but he did not have to motivate.
More Interview Chapters
- Background and Early Career
- Early Involvement with the ARC, War on Poverty, MH/MR Act
- YOU ARE HERE: Allegheny County ARC, Parent Protests, Right to Education
- Polk State School and Hospital, Controversial Treatments, Firing of Superintendant
- Peters Becomes PA Commissioner for Mental Retardation, Opens Marcy Center, Moves People to Community
- Peters Becomes Director of Allegheny County MH/MR and Drug and Alcohol and Homelessness
- Reflections on Career, Intellectual Disability Rights Movement
About Charles Kantan Peters
Born: 1933, Pittsburgh, PA
Retired. Formerly: Educator, Director of the Governors Rehabilitation Study, New Hampshire, Director/ War on Poverty, Erie, PA, Director / Allegheny County ARC, Commissioner for Mental Retardation / Allegheny County, Director of Allegheny County MH/MR and Drug and Alcohol and Homelessness
ARC, Civil Rights, Community, Institutions, Marcy, Parents, Polk State School and Hospital, PLF/ID, Protests, Special Education, Western Center