Frontline Initiative Diversity

Member Profile:
The President's Committee on Mental Retardation

At the time that John F. Kennedy took office as President of the United States in January of 1961, people with mental retardation were largely ignored, kept out of sight in large congregate institutions or tucked away in family homes in communities that offered little or no service options other than what parents were able to cobble together themselves. The advocacy movement, in the form of what was then known as the National Association for Retarded Children, had been active since 1950, but the availability of services in schools and workshops to educate people about mental retardation were in embryonic stages.

President Kennedy had a younger sister with mental retardation, and aided by the vision and initiative of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver, he called together a President’s Panel on Mental Retardation to take stock of the service situation and make recommendations about what could be done. There followed a small but mighty explosion of funding and service expansion that provided funds for construction of residential facilities and research through the establishment of the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson issued an Executive Order that formally created the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation (PCMR), which has advised every President since that time. Twentyone Presidentially appointed Committee members and ex-officio members representing all the key departments of government (i.e., Health and Human Services, Education, Labor, Transportation, Justice, etc.) strive to promote the welfare of American citizens with mental retardation and other intellectual disabilities. Some of the field’s most distinguished figures, including Elizabeth Boggs and Gunnar Dybwad, have served as PCMR members or consultants. PCMR served as the cradle for the newborn system of developmental disabilities services during the early 1970s.

During the Clinton Administration, PCMR has taken up the cause of direct support professionals. President Clinton appointed John F. Kennedy, Jr. to the PCMR in 1995. With his lead in the work of Reaching Up, Inc., and under the direction of Committee Chair Valerie Bradley, PCMR collaborated with Kennedy’s New York based group to initiate the National Alliance of Direct Support Professionals. Reaching Up, Inc. has provided funding for the PCMR publications Opportunities for Excellence: Supporting the Frontline Workforce and the five-part series, With a Little Help from My Friends: A Series on Contemporary Supports to People with Mental Retardation.

In honor of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and the work he chose in enhancing opportunities for DSPs, PCMR created a new John F. Kennedy, Jr. Award for Excellence in Direct Support, an honor that carries a $500 cash award. It was presented to Mr. Lathan Simmons, Jr., an exemplary professional life coach from Raleigh, North Carolina, at the PCMR/ Reaching Up Conference on Poverty and Disability in New York City, on February 23, 2000. In this first year of competition, no fewer than 145 exceptionally qualified candidates were nominated.

In addition to the national organization and helpful publications, PCMR initiated The Next Generation of Leadership Symposium in 1996 to promote career and advocacy development among leaders who are 35 and younger from all across the spectrum of the developmental disabilities field. New self-advocates, young families, teachers, advocates, DSPs, researchers, agency administrators, and service providers gather together in Washington D.C. to engage in forums where their voices can be heard. At this symposium, the Next Generation is the venue for recognizing yet another PCMR award—the Elizabeth Monroe Boggs Young Leader Award, is given to an individual to recognize his or her advocacy achievements. This year’s competition will open during the month of March.

PCMR is planning The Next Generation of Leadership Millennium Summit to take place August 17-19, 2000 at the Washington Court Hotel in Washington D.C. This fifth annual meeting promises to focus on career planning, workforce development issues, and skill building for the workplace and for life. We hope to see a lot of direct support professionals there including YOU!