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Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium

OCTOBER 2020 NEWSLETTER
Western Pennsylvania Disability History & Action Consortium

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Patricia Clapp Collection Available Online


The Consortium is pleased to announce that historic documents and photographs from Patricia Clapp’s career as a disability rights advocate are now available online!

Preserved at the Heinz History Center, Pat Clapp’s collection is an invaluable window into the early work of local grassroots advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. These historic materials reflect Clapp’s leadership in local and statewide efforts to ensure human and civil rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, including the right to education and the right to live in the community. The online collection can be found at Historic Pittsburgh's website.

 
Members of the Mayview Hospital Occupational Therapy Department, with Patricia "Pat" Clapp standing second from left. She began working in the department after graduating from Wilkinsburg High School in 1947, and it informed her thinking on institutionalization. Citation: Patricia Clapp Papers and Photographs, MSS 1196, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.
Members of the Mayview Hospital Occupational Therapy Department, with Patricia "Pat" Clapp standing second from left. She began working in the department after graduating from Wilkinsburg High School in 1947, and it informed her thinking on institutionalization. Citation: Patricia Clapp Papers and Photographs, MSS 1196, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.

Clapp’s advocacy began in the early 1950s when she joined the Junior Section of the Wilkinsburg Women’s Club of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC). This local club learned through a guest speaker that a child was denied entry to public school because the child had Down syndrome. Galvanized to address this need, Clapp and fellow Junior Section members raised funds to support a pre-school for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Performing in a fund-raising revue, the women raised $2,000 for the cause. They donated the funds to the Allegheny County chapter of The Arc (then known as ACC-PARC), which in turn opened the Wilkinsburg Pre-School for Mentally Retarded Children at South Avenue Methodist Church in Wilkinsburg. It was the first of thirteen pre-schools for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities started by ACC-PARC. Clapp assumed a major role in moving the project forward, including working at the pre-school as a volunteer. Together with Junior Section members, Pat also launched a National Crusade for Change among Junior Section GFWCs to develop programs for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in every community.

When Clapp’s son David was diagnosed with Down syndrome in 1955, her civically derived advocacy became personal. Like most parents of children with Down syndrome in that era, Clapp and her husband Harry were advised to institutionalize their youngest son. When they reached out to the American Medical Association for information about the best services for him, they received a letter telling them there was “no chance that the condition can be improved.” 
Letter from the American Medical Association reflecting an inaccurate and grim medical prognosis for children with Down syndrome in the 1950s. Citation:Patricia Clapp Papers and Photographs, MSS 1196, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.
Letter from the American Medical Association reflecting an inaccurate and grim medical prognosis for children with Down syndrome in the 1950s. Citation:Patricia Clapp Papers and Photographs, MSS 1196, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.

The letter reads: 

“Dear Sir: 

No popular discussion of retarded children or mongolism ever has been prepared by the Bureau of Health Education. However, you may be interested in the enclosed list of schools for children with mental defects. As far as mongolism is concerned, the advice usually given is that such children should be placed in some institution, since there is no chance that the condition can be improved.

You may be able to obtain suggestions about sources of material on retarded children by writing to the National Society for Crippled Children and Adults, Inc., 11 South La Salle Street, Chicago 3, Illinois. That organization has contacts with many special groups working in this area.”

“That was a dark letter,” Clapp said in a 2019 interview.  “I just decided [institutionalization] was not going to happen to my child.” 

Seeking out other parents of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Clapp became involved with ACC-PARC and the Arc of Pennsylvania. Dedication and persistence soon began to bear fruit. In the late 1950s, ACC-PARC and the GFWC helped get legislation passed in Pennsylvania for newborn testing for Phenylketonuria (PKU), a genetic disorder. 

By the late 1960s, Clapp’s kitchen table served as the drawing board for “Crusade for Change,” a program of ACC-PARC and GFWC that developed multiple pre-school programs for children with disabilities, an early building block of educational rights for children with disabilities. David Clapp attended the first pre-school that his mother and fellow GFWC members started and maintained in Wilkinsburg’s South Avenue Methodist Church. This program, and others like it - also women-driven and many hosted by churches - quickly went national. 

In the 1970s, as the institutionalization of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities began to be challenged and the concept of community-based living took hold, Clapp worked to support the establishment of Horizon Home, Allegheny County’s first group home (now referred to as “community” homes). 
Pat Clapp, standing before a podium with a bouquet of flowers in April 1971. Pat's husband, Harry Clapp, is standing beside her. Patricia Clapp Papers and Photographs, MSS 1196, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.
Pat Clapp, standing before a podium with a bouquet of flowers in April 1971. Pat's husband, Harry Clapp, is standing beside her. Patricia Clapp Papers and Photographs, MSS 1196, Detre Library and Archives, Heinz History Center.

These changes were not accomplished without opposition, some of it quite strong. A major effort and accomplishment in this era involving ACC-PARC and the state Arc was the exposure of horrid conditions at Polk State Hospital in Venango County. Clapp and other advocates went into the facility where they personally witnessed adults in enclosures they described as cages and restrained in other ways.  

“[We] dared to change a system at Polk,” Clapp said in the 2019 interview, explaining the opposition to the effort. Although ACC-PARC advocates were appalled by conditions in institutions, many parents of institutionalized people did not want a change in the status quo. Clapp and others received “nasty letters from parents,” she said. In addition, some leaders within the statewide Arc advised her to not “rock the boat.”  

Disturbing as it was to be singled out, she stayed the course. “As advocates, you put on your suit of armor and move ahead,” she said. As president of the statewide Arc, Clapp did just that. She was “one of the first to show leadership in advocacy,” Bob Nelkin, a staff member at ACC-PARC during those years and fellow advocate, said in an interview.

For more on the role of the ACC-PARC in exposing human rights abuses in state-administered and state-funded institutions during the 1970s, we recommend the article Advocacy on Record: The Collection of the ACC-PARC, by Sierra Green, Archivist at the Heinz History Center, and the Bob Nelkin Collection.

Now in her 90s and living in North Carolina, Clapp applauds the early synergy of ACC-PARC and the influence of traditional women’s networks. The legacy of their work and camaraderie still continues in programs of The Arc today. Her son David, now 64, had a career with the arcBARKS Dog Treat Bakery, an Arc enterprise with national clients that provides vocational training for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Funding for the processing and partial digitization of the Patricia Clapp Collection was provided by the Western Pennsylvania Disability History and Action Consortium. 

Darby Penney, Keynote Speaker for December 3 Event: No Longer Locked Away: Amplifying the Voices, Visibility and Legacy of Individuals with Mental Illness 


Register now for December 3, 2020, as the Consortium hosts a discussion on the history and contemporary voices of people with lived experience in the world of mental illness, featuring keynote speaker Darby Penney. 
 
Photograph of Darby Penney. Image source: http://www.community-consortium.org
Photograph of Darby Penney.
Image source: http://www.community-consortium.org

Penney is a longtime activist and advocate for people with psychiatric histories, with more than 35 years’ experience in the field of mental health. Her focus includes trauma-informed approaches and peer support. Her work has been recognized for its contributions to policy making and program management, as well as being powerfully humanizing. With Peter Stastny, M.D., she researched and wrote The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic. For an example of the voices she has helped to raise out of obscurity, see the Willard Suitcases project website

The early years of mental health care in America relied on institutions like New York’s Willard Asylum and Pittsburgh’s Dixmont State Hospital, with their focus on separation and containment. The evolution of thought began to shift the public dialogue toward the ideas of rehabilitation and treatment in the early 1900s, in many cases elevated by the financial support of philanthropists such as Henry Phipps and Andrew Carnegie. Still plagued by significant problems, institutions were forced into a phase of reform as advocates brought to light, over and over again, the frequent human rights violations in the name of “wellness.”

Mental health services today provide more holistic services than ever before. Deinstitutionalization, residential homes, independent living, and peer and community support have become the modern medical trend. This does not mean that the dialogue around mental health institutionalization has ended or become obsolete. Six state mental institutions still operate today. 

We hope you will join us to continue the conversation. Our next newsletter will feature a story about the second part of this event. Rachel Kallem Whitman, Ed.D. will host a conversation by and for people with mental illness who have developed their own messaging on social media to elevate the public discussion on topics such as language, stigma, advocacy, access, discrimination, social justice, representation, and visibility.

DePaul School Time Capsule Discovery

 
In September 2020, a time capsule was discovered during the demolition of the former DePaul Institute for the Deaf in the Brookline neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A tip from a former student led to the discovery. The copper box was located inside a cornerstone dated 1949. Research showed that the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph reported that more than 400 people attended the original cornerstone-laying ceremony that year.
 
A selection of items removed from the time capsule. Photo Source: DePaul School for Hearing and Speech
A selection of items removed from the time capsule. 
Photo Source: DePaul School for Hearing and Speech 

The 2020 unearthing had a smaller but equally passionate crowd of alumni, teachers and construction crew waiting to welcome the contents back to the light of day. The box contained coins, religious memorabilia, notes, and newspaper clippings. The DePaul School for Hearing and Speech, now located on Alder Street in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh, plans to document and archive all of the items found in the time capsule. You can watch the discovery in a clip from WTAE here

Have you taken our survey?

Please take our survey about disability history if you haven't already done so. The Consortium serves as a clearinghouse for records and artifacts that tell the story of disability rights history and activism in Western Pennsylvania. 

If you know of such items or information, we'd like to add them to the listings on our website. If you need help preserving them, we can help with that too. 

Contact us at info@wpdhac.org.
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