Voices of Change Videos
The Story of Paul Dick, Accessible Transportation Advocate
At just 14 years-old, Blair County native Paul Dick (1940 – 2010) was diagnosed with polio. He began to experience paralysis and use a wheelchair. He started treatments at Warm Springs, a polio treatment facility founded by President Franklin Roosevelt. As a teen who was receiving treatments and care away from home, then a professional who was faced with unreliable transportation to work, Paul saw firsthand that transportation was a major barrier for people with disabilities.
Paul, an ardent changemaker, was determined to eliminate this barrier. He helped create Allegheny County’s ACCESS Transportation System, one of the largest coordinated systems that stands as a model nationwide. His remarkable 55-year advocacy career focused on ensuring sustainable, accessible public transportation that operated as a collaboration between government and the citizens who use it.
Kate Bayer, special education teacher, Polk State Center, early 1970s
As a graduate student in special education at Pennsylvania’s Clarion University in the early 1970s, Kate Bayer spent nine months teaching school-age children at Polk State Center, an institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Venango County.
Her assignment to Polk Center followed the 1972 Pennsylvania judicial decree which guaranteed–for the first time–the “Right to Education” for children with disabilities.
At Polk, Kate witnessed treatment she considered inhumane. Committed to making sure that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities were treated with dignity and respect, Kate went on to work in a community-based disability services agency for 28 years. She began as a direct care professional and retired as Director of Development and Marketing.
Kate’s account of teaching at Polk State Center, her observations about the treatment of residents, and her life-long commitment to people with disabilities is part of Western Pennsylvania history. Kate, a long-time resident of the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, passed away in March 2021 at the age of 70.
Interview with sisters of Danny Flavin, who lived for 56 years at Polk State Center
Danny Flavin (1946-2018) was one of seven children in a large Irish American family in a Pittsburgh suburb. He was born with a genetic condition that resulted in intellectual disabilities. His childhood took place in a time when few services were available for children with disabilities. Nevertheless, the Flavins raised their son at home amid a loving family.
When Danny was 16 years old, his parents became concerned about aggressive behaviors that had become a risk to his safety and the safety of others. No support services were available to help the family keep Danny at home. His parents made the difficult decision to move him to Polk State School and Hospital (now Polk Center), a large institution with about 3,000 residents at that time.
Danny’s transition to Polk Center was hard on the entire family, but was especially difficult for his father, Frank, who doted on his son and worked with him tirelessly. In this interview, Danny’s sisters, Virginia and Carol, speak about their strong connection with their brother, the care he received at Polk, and their support of state centers for people with significant disabilities. Polk Center, which remains open today with just over 100 residents, is moving toward closure.
Interview with Ceil Belasco and Liz Healey, advocates for inclusive education in the Pittsburgh Public Schools
From the 1990s through 2010s, Ceil Belasco and Liz Healey were at the forefront of the movement for inclusive education for students with disabilities in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. They worked to ensure that students with disabilities had the opportunity to be educated alongside their peers in regular classrooms, and that teachers received the support they needed to engage diverse learners.
Belasco, as an educator, and Healey, as a school board member, worked with others to create a system-wide commitment to educating students with disabilities alongside their non-disabled peers.
In addition to their professional roles, Belasco and Healey were parents of children with disabilities who were among the first generation of students to be educated in inclusive classrooms.
In their respective roles in the Pittsburgh school district, they networked, organized, and advocated to bring about a district-wide, transformational commitment to inclusive education practice, advance the rights of students with disabilities, and open minds about the benefits of inclusive education for all students. They worked closely with district officials to develop the vision and best practices for inclusive education, and to earn a reputation as one of the districts in the nation most engaged in inclusive education.
Randy Gorske of Crawford County and M.J. Bartelmay of Mercer County, Western PA disability rights leaders
Randy Gorske of Crawford County and M.J. Bartelmay of Mercer County are Western Pennsylvania disability right leaders who opened doors for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Randy Gorske was executive director of The Arc of Crawford County in northeastern Pennsylvania for 26 years beginning in 1988. He helped many residents of Polk State Center make the move to community living and served on the Human Rights Committee at Polk for many years.
M.J. Bartelmay (1957-2020) became active with The Arc of Mercer County in 1992 when his son, also named M.J., began receiving early intervention services. His advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities included leadership at the local, state and national level.
In this interview, the longtime colleagues talk about their shared commitment to ensuring respect, self-determination and quality of life for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the unique paths that led to their life work.
Interview with Nancy Murray, disability rights leader, and her daughter, Marisa Niwa
Nancy Murray, disability rights leader, and her daughter, Marisa Niwa, are well known in the Western Pennsylvania disability community. Nancy is the president of The Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, an organization with a long history of disability rights advocacy. Marisa is an independent adult with Down syndrome.
As a young married couple in the 1970s, Nancy Murray and her husband Joe became parents to Marisa and her brother Mickey Scarcelli through a program that connected children with disabilities to welcoming families.
In this interview, Nancy talks about her career in disability services and advocacy. Since the 1970s, she has worked in the areas of public policy, family support, supports coordination, healthcare, and state government. Her primary area of interest is the resilience of families of children and adults with disabilities, and the long-term impact of caring for a person with a disability on a family.
Marisa talks about independent living, her employment with Giant Eagle for nearly two decades, her volunteer work with South Hills Interfaith Movement, and her accomplishments as a Special Olympian in golf.
Father George Strohmeyer, co-founder of L’Arche Erie & Mary Ann Zarnick, long-time staff member
Father George Strohmeyer, co-founder of L’Arche Erie, and Mary Ann Zarnick, long-time staff member, talk about their introduction to the spiritual mission of the L’Arche movement, the founding of L’Arche Erie, the early years, and its ongoing work.
L’Arche Erie is a faith-based residential community where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. It is part of a worldwide federation of L’Arche communities, and was the first established in the United States. The French name “L’Arche” translates to “The Ark,” a reference to Noah’s Ark.
Father George Strohmeyer, a Catholic priest, co-founded L’Arche Erie with Sister Barbara Karsznia, a Catholic nun, in 1972. Father Strohmeyer served as pastoral leader for many years. Mary Ann Zarnick is one of the community’s longest-serving staff members.
The international L’Arche movement dates to 1964 when Canadian Jean Vanier (1928-2019), former Catholic seminarian and philosophy professor, and now denounced founder (see note below), began living with two formerly institutionalized men in the village of Trosly in northern France.
As of 2022, the world-wide L’Arche movement has grown to 154 communities in 38 countries on five continents. L’Arche Erie participates in the North American section of L’Arche International, which include communities in Cleveland, Boston and Syracuse, NY.
Note: In 2020, L’Arche International published findings from an independent inquiry into allegations of sexual misconduct by Jean Vanier. L’Arche International confirmed “credible and consistent testimonies from six adult women without disabilities, covering the period from 1970 to 2005.” The report on the inquiry goes on to say: “We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for. They are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and dignity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based….L’Arche is committed to making sure that its 154 communities across the world are places of safety and growth for all its members, with and without disabilities.”
Shirley Pickens, director, Polk Center, 2008-2020
Shirley Pickens retired in 2020 as director of Polk Center, a state institution for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Venango County. Shirley spent her entire professional career at Polk, serving as director for 12 years and in other professional roles for three decades prior.
Fresh out of college in 1981 with an art degree, Shirley took a job as a direct care assistant at Polk. Having grown up in nearby Sandy Creek, she was familiar with the institution. She expected the job to be temporary. Instead, she discovered a calling to serve the people who lived there and to make their well-being her life’s work.
In this interview, Shirley reflects on what Polk Center has meant to her, the positive changes she witnessed during her long tenure, and the honor of being of service to the people who live there.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened Polk Center in 1897 as what was then called an “institution for the feeble-minded.” The 100 acre site in Venango County was chosen because of its natural resources, fertile farmland and railway access. By the 1950s, Polk grew in size to 3,000 acres and its census reached a peak of 3,400 people. Overcrowding and other problems at Polk became known to the public in the 1960s and 1970s. Disability rights advocates called for sweeping changes, including allowing residents to leave Polk center and receive support services in their communities.
In 2019, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services announced plans to close Polk Center within a few years. Closure is expected in 2023.
Paul O’Hanlon, Kathleen Peer Kleinmann, and Brenda Dare – disability rights advocates and childhood residents of the Memorial Home for Crippled Children
in an era when children with physical disabilities received care and therapy in residential facilities, such as Memorial Home for Crippled Children, located in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill. In this interview, the three share their childhood memories of “the Home” in the 1950s through 1980s.
The Memorial Home for Crippled Children was founded in 1902. The organization was renamed The Children’s Institute in 1998, and continues to provide services to children with disabilities. It is no longer a residential facility.
- Allegheny County. “Allegheny County, City of Pittsburgh Celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the ADA (Part 2)” YouTube video, 24 minutes 46 seconds. Posted July 2015.
- Boyle, Zak. “A Tribute to Linda Dickerson.” Vimeo video, 6 minutes 13 seconds. Posted 2016.
- Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State. “Americans with Disabilities Act, Signing Ceremony, July 26, 1990.” 2015, 7:15 minutes. Includes comments from Dick Thornburgh, former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. attorney general. Posted 2020.
- City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities. “Small Differences.” 1995, 20 minutes. Copyright 1995, City of Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Task Force on Disabilities. Used by permission. Film follows a group of Pittsburgh middle school-age youth as they explore what people with and without disabilities have in common. Filmed and narrated by the youth. Directed by Tony Buba. Posted 2020.
- WNYIL. “Pioneers in Disability Rights and Community Organizing – An Interview with Kathleen Kleinmann.” YouTube video, 53 minutes 52 seconds. Posted April 2015.
- Pittsburgh and Allegheny County ADA25, Fisa Foundation. 2015.
- Pittsburgh Disability March and ADA 27th Anniversary Rally, Access Mob Pittsburgh. 2017.
- From Wrongs to Rights.
- ADA Diaries of Pennsylvania, It’s Our Story, LLC.
- Green, Sierra. “Collaborating to Identify, Preserve and Share Western Pennsylvania Disability History.” Slideshow, 90th Annual Meeting, Pennsylvania Historical Association, October 15, 2021. Presentation available here.
- Green, Sierra. “Researching the History of Institutionalized People.” Recorded presentation, Heinz History Center, April 2021. Resource List available here.
- Green, Sierra. “When Grassroots Advocacy Sparks Grassroots Preservation: Working alongside Advocates, Archivists, and Curators to Document the Historic Experiences of People with Disabilities.” Slideshow, Society of American Archivists annual conference, August 2019. Notes available here.
- Stump, Tyler. “Disability History Mother Lode: Records of Institutionalization at the Pennsylvania State Archives.” Slideshow, 90th Annual Meeting, Pennsylvania Historical Association, October 15, 2021. Download presentation slides and speaking notes.
- Stump, Tyler. “Working Collaboratively to Preserve and Share Pennsylvania’s Disability History Records: The Pennsylvania State Archives Perspective.” Slideshow, Society of American Archivists annual conference, August 2019. Notes available here.
- Sly, Margery. “Documenting Disability Rights History: Collaborating and Cooperating.” Slideshow, Society of American Archivists annual conference, August 2019. Notes available in presentation.
- Malley, Bridget. “Documentation Strategy and WPDHAC.” Slideshow, Society of American Archivists annual conference, August 2019. Notes available here.