Bob Nelkin Collection of ACC-PARC Records

What's online?

The online materials from the Bob Nelkin Collection of ACC-PARC Records include correspondence, reports, meeting minutes, case files, notes, and news clippings that document the disability advocacy initiatives undertaken by ACC-PARC members throughout the late 1960s and 1970s.

What's in the entire collection?

The Bob Nelkin Collection of Allegheny County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (ACC-PARC) Records contain administrative records, state school and hospital and interim care committee records, scrapbooks and photographs.


First formed in 1951, the Allegheny County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (ACC-PARC) was established as a grassroots organization comprised of the parents of people with disabilities. Operating under the name "the Greater Pittsburgh Association of Parents and Friends of the Mentally Retarded," this organization adopted a mission to "promote the general welfare of mentally retarded children of all ages everywhere." In 1956, the association reached non-profit status and changed its name to the Allegheny County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (ACC-PARC) in order to reflect its affiliation with the statewide advocacy organization. In 1963, ACC-PARC was comprised of over 1,000 active members.

To fulfill its mission, ACC-PARC created a number of services to assist people with disabilities and their families, including diagnostic clinics, education and vocational training, community centers, ongoing research and advocacy efforts, counseling, and recreational activities. Counseling services offered by ACC-PARC often consisted of residential and educational referrals, case screenings, and care recommendations. ACC-PARC's advocacy efforts supported the association's vocational training programs centered on instructing people with disabilities how to perform tasks and become contributors in the workforce. ACC-PARC also chartered buses to facilitate site visits for the families of people with disabilities. In addition to providing ongoing services, ACC-PARC also regularly organized internal conventions to assess ongoing needs of people with disabilities in the region and regularly offered informative programs throughout the year.

To oversee and direct these activities, ACC-PARC was led by elected officers, a board of directors, and various committees, including Residential Care, State Affairs, Personnel, and Membership. Together with elected officers and board members, ACC-PARC's activities were also executed by the association's personnel, which included an executive director.

The aspect of ACC-PARC's daily activities most represented in these records are the efforts of the association to investigate the treatment of people with disabilities at residential care facilities in Western Pennsylvania during the 1960s and 1970s. Prompted by informal reports of mistreatment, ACC-PARC committee members developed a grassroots strategy to investigate the living conditions of people with disabilities at care facilities throughout the region. Overseen by staff member, Bob Nelkin, a small team of ACC-PARC members harnessed leads and reports to inform both announced and unannounced visits to care facilities such as Western State School and Hospital, the Polk Center, the Ridgeview Center, and the Highland Park Center. The leads and reports received by ACC-PARC members often originated from both the parents of residents as well as residential care workers. The visitation teams paid particular attention to residents' living conditions, facility staffing data, sanitary conditions, disciplinary practices, and treatment strategies. Recording their observations directly following their visit, the visitation team then generated formalized notes and reports that reflected their findings. Throughout the course of their visits, the visitation teams discovered that various facilities throughout the region employed the use of strait jackets, restraints, isolation rooms, cattle prods, and other abuses that violated the residents' human rights.

With their observations in hand, ACC-PARC members exposed the inadequacies they discovered by opening communications with a number of entities, including local government legislators, the secretary of the Pennsylvania State Department of Public Welfare (DPW) and members of the local media. In adopting this strategy, ACC-PARC members worked to expose adverse living conditions of people with disabilities in order to affect legislative change that either terminated inadequate care facilities or instituted reform in resident care and staffing.

During his tenure, Bob Nelkin served as associate director of ACC-PARC under executive director Chuck Peters and oversaw the organization's various initiatives, including the residential care facility site visits, the Alternatives to Institutions initiative, the Community Living Arrangement program, and other disability advocacy activities. In this role, Nelkin often corresponded closely with ACC-PARC members, the Pa. State Department of Public Welfare, and local government leaders in order to advance ACC-PARC initiatives.

The chief resident care facilities visited by the team of ACC-PARC members were the Polk Center and the Western State School and Hospital. In some cases, the visitation teams discovered human rights violations such as the use of wooden cages, battery prods, straightjackets, and other restraints. Throughout the early 1970s, ACC-PARC members discovered and exposed inadequate living conditions of residents at the Polk Center. The state of living conditions at Polk as exposed by ACC-PARC visitation team prompted the secretary of the Department of Public Welfare, Helene Wohlgemuth, to make an impromptu visit to the care facility. The conditions she witnessed prompted her to call for the immediate resignation of the Polk Center's superintendent, Dr. James H. McClelland, Jr. The organization's efforts to raise awareness of these conditions prompted an improvement in resident care, including the termination of the use of cages.

The ACC-PARC visitation team turned their attention to living conditions at the Western State School and Hospital (WSSH) throughout the early 1970s. Of primary concern to ACC-PARC members and other visitation task force members were the overcrowded conditions they discovered at the WSSH. As a result of their investigations, ACC-PARC associate executive director, Bob Nelkin published an essay "Death: A Way of Life," that shed light on the recent deaths of WSSH residents caused by staffing deficiencies, negligence, and mistreatment. ACC-PARC's partnership with Washington County Coroner Farrell Jackson sparked a formal joint visitation task force team comprised of mental health professionals in 1974. The notes and reports generated by this task force as well as ACC-PARC visitation team members did much to raise awareness across the state of the deficiencies at WSSH. In addition to reporting and publicizing the adverse conditions at WSSH, ACC-PARC also engaged in legal battles in order to stymie any court attempts to mandate the admission of new residents to WSSH.

In keeping with the mission of their advocacy efforts in Western Pa., ACC-PARC members closely followed the course of a 1974 federal class action lawsuit filed against the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, a residential care facility for the intellectually disabled in Spring City, Pa. Referred to as Halderman vs. Pennhurst State School and Hospital, this case argued that the deplorable living conditions of residents at Pennhurst was in violation of the Pa. Mental Health/Mental Retardation Act of 1966 as well as the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Decisions in both the state district (1977) and circuit courts (1979) mandated the closure of Pennhurst and the dispersal of residents to smaller community living facilities. ACC-PARC ardently supported this decision to remove people with disabilities from institutions such as Pennhurst in favor of alternative living arrangements such as group homes and community living arrangements. As a consequence, ACC-PARC members under the direction of Bob Nelkin sustained pressure on state leaders, including Governor Dick Thornburgh, to implement court orders. In 1981, the United State Supreme Court ruled that it could not mandate the dispersal of Pennhurst residents due to the fact that it could not order state officials to observe state laws. Due to this decision, Pennhurst was not closed until December of 1987. Despite this, the Halderman vs. Pennhurst decision still set a precedent that people with disabilities had the right to live in community. In addition to mandating the dispersal of residents, the presiding judge also ordered that reports be conducted to document the adjustment of Pennhurst residents to community living arrangements.
As a result of their visits to the residential care facilities such as WSSH and the Polk Center, ACC-PARC began to advocate for community living arrangements as a viable alternative to institutionalization for people with disabilities. Members embraced debates surrounding zoning for these smaller community living arrangements and underscored the approach of these group homes to cultivate skills among residents.

In 1981, ACC-PARC complied with its parent organization's name change and became the Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC) of Allegheny County. In 1992, the organization once again followed the lead of its umbrella entity and became the Arc Allegheny. Arc Allegheny was later combined with the Arc of Beaver County to become the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh. As of the writing of this finding aid, the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh, the Arc of Westmoreland County, the ACHIEVA Support, and the ACHIEVA Family Trust were children organizations of ACHIEVA.

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