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The 1950's

In the beginning...

In May, 1955 seven local parent associations joined together to create the B.C. Association for Retarded Children which later became the B.C. Association for the Mentally Retarded, British Columbians for Mentally Handicapped People and finally the B.C. Association for Community Living.

Despite several name changes over the years, the fundamental purpose and goals of the association have remained the same. Those who gathered to found this province-wide association 40 years ago pioneered a movement whose legacy continues today.

Our founding members were: the St. Christopher's School Society in North Vancouver; the Kootenay Society for Handicapped Children; The Vancouver Association for Retarded Children; the Upper Fraser Valley Society for Handicapped Children; the Kelowna and District Society for Retarded Children; the B.C. Society for Handicapped Children in New Westminster; and the Powell River Society for the Handicapped.

On May 21, 1954 Dr. Donald Paterson, a consulting pediatrician for the Handicapped Children's Registry, called a meeting of all persons "interested in the advancement of mentally retarded children." That meeting, which brought together representatives from six parent groups, three government departments (Mental Health, Health, and Education), the Metropolitan Health Committee, and the Vancouver School Board, laid the groundwork for the formation of what is now called the British Columbia Association for Community Living.

When we were officially formed in 1955, however, our founding name was the Association for Retarded Children of B.C. (ARC BC). And it was under this name that we pioneered the initial work of our province-wide association.

The issue at the heart of our formation, which may come as a surprise to some, was education. In the early 1950"s, many parents were struggling to find ways to educate their children, who, because of their "mental retardation" label, were entirely excluded from the public school system.

Many parents passionately believed their children were capable of learning (despite general thinking to the contrary) and that their children had a right to develop their individual potentials, just like the rest of society's children. Faced with a public school system which refused to take any responsibility for educating children with mental handicaps, parents formed their own local societies in communities throughout B.C. to provide schooling for their children.

In this respect, the founding of ARC BC in 1955 represented a major victory for parent-led societies. This was the only vehicle the government would recognize as a legitimate way to fund society schools. Having survived on donations, these fledgling schools at last would receive monies from the public purse. Once ARC BC was formed, legislation allowing government to contribute to the societies quickly followed. The amount was $256.47 per child which included 4.14% for administration!

At the Association"s 1956 AGM, Dr. W.A. Plenderlaith, representing the Department of Education, told delegates, "Government does not wish to go into the field of education for retarded children and believes it is better to leave the matter in the hands of the organizations who are dealing with it."

His counterpart from the Department of Health, Dr. A.M. Gee, was a bit more inspiring and for his time, somewhat visionary. "Every child has the right to develop his potentialities to the maximum," he said. "Every effort should be made to prevent him being cut off, by the special provisions made for him, from his family, from other more normal children of his age, and from the community in general."

That summer, the first "special education" teacher training course was held at UBC. The 39 registrants included teachers, parents, and helpers. ARC BC paid the tuition fees and everyone paid their own transportation.

"We are quite convinced that there are no children who are entirely uneducatable," speaker Dean Scarfe told his audience. "All children who are born are part of society and each one deserves what society brings to all children."

By 1957, the first of what was to become a yearly brief to the provincial government, outlining the ARC BC program for children with "mental retardation," was produced. It stated, "Our function is to point out the necessity, set the standards for providing the adequate educational facilities which are every bit as much the birthright of retarded children as they are of the more fortunate normal ones."

By 1958, ARC BC had jumped to 32 member chapters serving 348 school children. That summer another teacher training course was held at UBC; this time for two weeks with 80 people attending, several of them from out-of-province. This success led UBC to introduce training in the field of mental retardation into their regular teacher training curriculum.

One year later, the first Chair of Special Education was established at UBC with professor Dr. J.A. Richardson appointed to the position. The year 1959 also saw a critical amendment to the School Act, which enabled public school boards to take over full responsibility for the education and training of "moderately retarded" children. This was the first time in Canada that educating children with special needs was recognized as a public responsibility. The Act also permitted school boards to accommodate society classes and the individual student grant was increased by 50%.

Clearly, ARC BC was on a roll. In four short years the association had made astounding progress. At the time, however, it would appear some members were anxious for a speedier resolve to the issues they were facing.

Said President Richard McCallum to the membership in 1959: "I would at this time just remind some of our members who may get a bit impatient with the progress that is being made. To some, it seems as though we are just crawling, and they feel we should be running."

Nonetheless, a Pediatric Journal of the time, commenting on the huge interest by all disciplines in mental retardation, stated: "Much of the credit for the impetus in this important movement belongs to the parents of retarded children who, because of their persistence, perseverance and courage, have shown the way."

Without the tenacity and vision of so many parents, it is hard to imagine where we would be today.