Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium

New Consortium to Focus on Disability History of Western Pennsylvania

Individuals and Organizations are Invited to Join

The Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium has been established to preserve and honor the historic struggle of Western Pennsylvanians with disabilities to attain human and civil rights.

The Consortium is comprised of individuals and organizations committed to raising awareness of disability rights history and educating the public through research, preservation and outreach activities.

Founding members of the Consortium include the Senator John Heinz History Center, United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, ACHIEVA, Tri-county Patriots for Independent Living (Washington County), Polk Center (Venango County), Community Living and Support Services (CLASS), National Alliance on Mental Illness — Southwestern PA (NAMI), Institute on Disabilities at Temple University, and the Pennsylvania History Coalition Honoring People with Disability.

Over the last five decades, landmark federal laws have been enacted to protect the rights of people with disabilities. Prior to the groundswell of advocacy for such laws in the 1960s and 1970s, people with disabilities were routinely excluded from the mainstream of community life and equal opportunity. Many thousands were institutionalized, subjected to mistreatment, and denied appropriate education.

The formation of the Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium reflects efforts across Pennsylvania and the nation to use history to educate the larger community about ongoing advocacy for equal opportunity, full participation, and humane policies and laws.

The struggle by and for people with disabilities to attain human and civil rights has only recently been recognized as part of American history. In many locations – including western Pennsylvania — the dramatic changes that have occurred have not been sufficiently documented, preserved or shared. Attention to do so is growing, along with the understanding that history can be an effective tool to create more inclusive communities.

Western Pennsylvania is home to a significant amount of disability history. The region has a strong record of grassroots advocacy to ensure public education, transportation, and other services, and to end the segregation of people with disabilities in the region’s state-run institutions. While most of those institutions are now closed, one of them — Polk State School and Hospital in Venango County – remains as one of the most intact campuses of its kind in the nation and still operates with about 200 residents as Polk Center. Ensuring the preservation and educational use of Polk’s archives and artifacts will be a priority for the Consortium.

“Western Pennsylvania has a definite need to organize and share its disability history,” said Dana Olsen of the Pennsylvania History Coalition Honoring People with Disability. “The Consortium will take the lead in this effort.”

The Consortium will engage in projects such as exhibits, forums that promote community dialogue, and curricula for schools. One of its initial projects will be an inventory of the collections, documents, artifacts and oral histories that exist in western Pennsylvania and the establishment of a searchable resource for educators, museum professionals, scholars and the public.

“The History Center is honored to be part of this important effort to document, preserve, and share the stories of people with disabilities, as well as the history of those who have advocated for equality for all people in our region,” said Anne Madarasz, vice president, Museum Exhibits and Collections, Heinz History Center. “We are actively working to ensure that this history is saved so it informs our understanding of the past and the decisions we make in the future.”

Funding for the planning stages of the Consortium comes from the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council. Additional funding comes from the Edith L. Trees Foundation.

Any individual or organization with an interest in joining the Consortium or providing information for its work is invited to contact John L. Tague, Jr., project director, at 412-952-5402 or jtaguejr@aol.com.


The Smithsonian has an existing online Exhibit about the Disability Rights Movement. You can view the Exhibit online by Clicking Here

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