2020 marks 100 years of service from The Ability Center of Greater Toledo (ACT), a nonprofit organization that has evolved to meet the needs of the community and to reflect the changing societal views of living with a disability. From its humble beginnings, as the Toledo Society for Crippled Children in 1920, to its current Disability Dialog campaign, ACT has been an important resource for helping those with disabilities thrive in Toledo.
As you might imagine, the climate for people with disabilities in the 1920s and 30s was not as progressive as it is today. Though the Toledo Society for Crippled Children did have community support, the public’s general ideas about disabilities during that time presents a grim picture.
“Children with disabilities— often referred to as ‘little cripples’— were not allowed or encouraged to go to school,” notes Dan Wilkins, ACT Director of Special Projects and the organization’s historian “[These children with disabilities were often hidden away] for a number of reasons, including religious and secular stigmas associated with disability, financial difficulties for families parenting such children, and lack of medical or governmental services available to them. These children were sequestered behind their own front doors and never expected to become successful. Subsequently, they did not get the important medical, educational, or community support needed to become viable, independent adults.”
The spread of polio presented further need for expansion of the Society’s mission, prompting an initiative to build a hospital and rehabilitation facility for children suffering, and recovering from, the disease. It became a reality in 1937— thanks to a $50,000 donation from Edward Drummond Libbey— when Opportunity Home was born. Located on Central Avenue, near Douglas Road in what has more recently been St. Anthony’s Villa and the Lake Erie Academy, Opportunity Home acted as a hospital and a school for the children treated there.
Mid-century changes: 1950s-1960s
With the Salk vaccine for polio arriving in 1953 and the height of the epidemic on the decline, Opportunity Home soon closed, and the Society underwent another transformation in the early 1960s. Focusing on education and therapies for children with disabilities, Opportunity Kindergarten offered programs that were instrumental to the development of many children, including ACT’s current Executive Director, Tim Harrington, a graduate of the school’s very first class.
“Opportunity Kindergarten gave children with disabilities a safe and supportive space to begin their educational journey,” says Wilkins. “They were taught using the latest techniques for teaching children who learn in different ways. There was also a focus on providing any therapies necessary throughout their day. Providing education and therapy together under one roof was unique and beneficial to the children and their families.”
Changing societal views: 1975-1990
Public Law 94-142 (Education for All Handicapped Children) was voted into law in 1975, making it possible for children of all abilities to attend public schools. For many, this was a sign that times were changing, and that people’s perceptions of disability were changing with them.
Ability Center Timeline:
1920— Toledo Society for Cripple Children is established
1937— The Society opens Oportunity Home to help children with polio
1965— Opportunity Kindergarten opens in Libbey House
1976— The Society’s name changes to the Toledo Society for the Handicapped
1990— TSH changes its name to The Ability Center of Greater Toledo (ACT)
Accessibility Laws timeline:
1955— Delaware becomes the first state to pass a law providing for accessible parking
1968— The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) becomes law. All federal facilities began to be modified to be accessible and new structures would be designed fully accessible, with a mandate for parking spaces, signage and curb cuts.
1975— The Access Board forms. They worked with Amtrack to design accessible railroad cars and pushed for accessible airports.
1990— Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) becomes law, banning discrimination based on disability in both private and public sectors. It also required access to programs, services, facilities, transportation, employment and communication, including all-encompassing requirement that the closest parking spots be designated accessible parking.
Wilkins says that its passage “changed everything for children with disabilities and their families.” It also meant that the Society, which primarily served kids with polio, but also those with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and other life-long childhood disabilities, needed to change direction yet again. Now that public schools would serve children with disabilities within the school system, Opportunity Kindergarten would no longer be a necessity.
The accessibility provided by the 1975 law led to the Center’s evolution as the Toledo Society for the Handicapped in 1976, a vital support system to people outside of public school. The Society pushed for community inclusion while providing social services before the relatively common accessibility measures we take for granted today, like “curb cuts, automatic doors and accessible public spaces,” adds Wilkins. “[The Society] began to focus on issues of transportation, housing, employment, health care and well-being, and access to the community.”
A lack of accessibility prompted a move from Libbey House— which did not yet have an elevator to the second floor— to the Center’s current location in the 5800 block of Monroe Street in Sylvania. It was the 1980s, a time when an independent living movement was sweeping the nation and “disability-rights activists had begun pressing for equal access for all,” Wilkins says. “This involved curb cuts and accessible public transportation, accessible entrances to public buildings, accessible bathrooms and programming. The Society supported these national efforts and directed those activities in Toledo and across Northwest Ohio.”
This shift in focus to independent living, along with changing views on terminology preferences, brought another name change in 1990 as the Toledo Society for the Handicapped became The Ability Center of Greater Toledo.
Words we’ve taken back
“Trying to remain progressive and current, the Society’s name became problematic,” says Wilkins. Ultimately, the name change to The Ability Center set a new tone, moving away from the idea of helplessness and emphasizing, instead, what people are able to do.
Though much dated terminology is still used by the larger public, there is a movement among those with disabilities to take ownership of offensive terms, explains Wilkins. “Within our movement and circles, we, ourselves, use words like ‘crip’ and ‘gimp,’ ‘cords, biffs, and blinks’ to define ourselves. These have become terms of endearment— ‘power’ words that once hurt, but, as many marginalized populations have done, they are words we’ve taken back.”
The organization’s recent campaign, Disability Dialog, is an effort to answer the question, “What would it take for our region to become the most disability-friendly community in the country?” A lofty goal, but one that provides options for Sam Melden, ACT’s Director of Strategic Engagement.
“The Disability Dialog campaign has been instrumental in bringing together the broader community to offer insight and perspective on what we can do together to make our community the most disability-friendly in the country,” Melden says. “We continue to identify significant barriers facing people with disabilities in the areas of transportation, housing, employment, education, and a culture of inclusion. In an effort to address these barriers there are many important steps to take, in partnership with community leaders and organizations, to create access and opportunity for everyone in our community.”
Learn how you can be an advocate by visiting ACT’s website, abilitycenter.org, or calling 419-885-5733.