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History's Headlines: The Arc of Change

VIDEO: History's Headlines: The Arc...

The Arc of Lehigh and Northampton Counties regards its birthday as February 13, 1967. But nothing about it receiving its charter to aid those who were then called retarded and now defined as those with intellectual and developmental disabilities made it to the local papers. And yet a lot of other things were happening.

For one thing people in the Lehigh Valley were getting tired of snow. It had started snowing on Christmas Eve of 1966 and barely missed a day. But the weather report in the Morning Call had good news: there would be no snow that day.

Vietnam dominated the headlines. LBJ had called for a bombing pause after a four-day truce, but bombing had resumed the next day and so did ground fighting in Saigon. The riots and unrest that were to result from the war in the coming months and years were just over the horizon.

For film fans, the Colonial was offering Michael Caine in the Cold War thriller “Funeral in Berlin”. If you liked Caine you could see him again that week in the risqué hit “Alfie,” the first film that bore the designation, “suggested for mature audiences,” being held over at the Rialto. And in a similar vein James Mason, Alan Bates and Lynn Redgrave were appearing in “Georgy Girl” at the Plaza at the Whitehall Mall that day.

But for those involved in what was known as the Lehigh County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children there was some shocking news. Dr. William P. Camp, state commissioner of mental health and deputy secretary of public health, announced his resignation. The 49 year old Camp, a psychiatrist, who took his position on December 1, 1963, “branded the state’s mental health program, ‘unworkable,’” but added he was not leaving his $27,697 job over politics. He was, however not pleased that under the mental health and mental retardation act passed the previous October by the legislature, the program had been separated into two offices.

In previous centuries those with intellectual and developmental disabilities were the recipients of unspeakable cruelty.  Social reformers in the early 19th century attempted to correct this by creating institutions that would separate them from the general population. Here it was assumed they would not be abused and subjects of public ridicule. In secluded rural settings away from the noisy city, it was argued they could receive the best of care by doctors and others who would have their best interests at heart. For the parents, relatives or other caregivers, they were often told there was no other alternative for their loved ones.

But beginning in the early 1930s a grassroots movement among parents began to demand that there be another way. By 1950 a survey published by Woodhaull Hay “revealed 88 local groups (38 organizations) with 2 additional… this represented 19,300 dues-paying members located in 19 states, the largest being the Children’s Benevolent League with 5,000 members in 11 local units.” By 1952 the National Association for Retarded Children was formed.

The official recognition of the Lehigh Chapter came in the form of a letter from the National Association for Retarded Children dated February 13, 1967. Sent by Mrs. Wilbur P. Ulle, chairwoman of  The Association’s membership committee and addressed to Parke Speary, the chapter’s president, it “warmly welcomed” the group as national unit #1418 of the NARC.  “You will begin to receive mailings and bulletins from NARC headquarters…Again may we say “Welcome” and wish you much success in your efforts to help all the retarded.”

In 1975 the chapter sent to the state a description of its goals in what today would be called a mission statement.  There current mission statement reads, “The mission of  The Arc of Lehigh and Northampton Counties is to advocate, educate and provide services and supports for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.”          

On a recent visit to their offices on Avenue A in Bethlehem, program participants were seen arriving for a day of activities. Among the many programs offered is Advocacy Services, a signature program of The Arc. The program provides individual assistance and support to children and adults with issues that threaten their quality of life.  In addition to Advocacy Services, The Arc offers programs and services that serve a combined total of more than 1,500 local people annually.

Among the newest programs is Wings over Autism, done in partnership with Lehigh Valley International Airport and Allegiant Airlines. The program offers a real-life air travel rehearsal experience for families who thought they could never travel by air. The Arc also works with schools to address issues of diversity, inclusion and bullying using film, art, and assemblies through their infusion and inclusion program.  

And to judge from its many supporters and growing community profile, it has become an agency with a proven track record. “The Arc has been making a difference in the lives of local people for half a century. Thanks to so many caring families, community partners, supportive donors and a committed staff and board, we look forward to the work ahead in making our community more inclusive for our friends and neighbors with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” says executive director Karen Shoemaker. 


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