The Arc of Illinois – 60 years strong and growing

The history of The Arc of Illinois reflects a rich grassroots movement that actually took to task misconceptions about the abilities of people with intellectual and other developmental disabilities. Our research indicates that families started meeting as support groups in the early 1930’s, meeting in church basements and people’s homes to provide support for families and voluntary day activities for their children with disabilities. It was in the mid to late 1940’s when families became more active in forming not-for-profit organizations in Illinois and around the nation.

The oldest known member organization of The Arc of the United States was called The Council for the Retarded Child in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which was founded in 1933.

The Arc of Illinois was founded in 1950 by local parent groups from throughout Illinois. It was officially incorporated as a not for profit corporation in October, 1955 as the Illinois Council for Mentally Retarded Children with Adele Karlson as its first Executive Director. Over the years the name of the organization evolved to its present name: The Arc of Illinois.

In September, 1950 The Arc of the United States was founded as the National Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children. when families gathered from throughout the nation in Minnesota to form a national organization. At this convention, there were 42 delegates from 23 states which included Illinois. The Arc of Illinois was one of the founding states of the national association.

In the 1950’s chapters of The Arc were forming throughout all of Illinois. They saw the need and the importance to become active locally and on a statewide and national level as a voice of support and advocacy for their children with disabilities. School boards and educators excluded children from the public schools at that point in time.

As a result of these local Arc chapters’ activities, we saw the inception of the first special education schools and sheltered workshops. These were a stark contrast to the development of state institutions which housed thousands of Illinois residents with disabilities in large congregate, often deplorable, institutional settings. The most notorious ones at the time were the state institutions in Lincoln and Dixon, Illinois which housed over 10,000 individuals in the 1960’s.

The vision of these families and The Arc of Illinois in these early times was that their children had value and could learn, given supports and opportunities. These courageous families took a strong advocacy stance – contrary to the professionals of the day.

In the early 1970’s Illinois was one of the first states in the nation to pass legislation that gave children with disabilities the right to be provided with a free and appropriate education. As a result, public funding was made available and the special education system in Illinois began to develop and flourish. It was also in the 1970’s through the advocacy of The Arc of Illinois and its membership that the first grants-in-aid were made available to community organizations like local chapters of The Arc of Illinois.

For the first time, professional staff was hired to work with children who were aging out of the special education schools. They bought buildings and laid the groundwork for the community system we know today.

In the late 1970’s The Arc spearheaded the development of community living options through local chapters of The Arc as an alternative to living in state institutions. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s we really began to see The Arc and other advocacy organizations putting strong emphasis on community inclusion, person-centered planning and self-determination.

The Arc of Illinois and its chapters have always been in the forefront of strong advocacy positions for people with disabilities and their families. Much of the important legislation nationally and in Illinois is a direct result of the advocacy of The Arc. It is rare when any piece of public policy does not have the fingerprints of The Arc upon it. The Arc continues to be a strong grassroots organization with a rich membership of self-advocates, parents and professionals working together to achieve common goals.

We continue the advocacy even today and invite you to join us. If you have information regarding the history of The Arc we would appreciate your input and comments. We’d love to hear from you.