Lynda Steele, Executive Director of Abilities United
 and Linda Vargas, parent and volunteer, celebrate at the
Abilities United 50th Anniversary Recognition party.

The following is Lynda Steele’s speech at the Abilities United 50th Anniversary Recognition party held on April 25, 2013.

When Abilities United was founded in 1963, life was very different for people with disabilities and their families. In California, 13,400 people were living in institutions and 3,000 more were on the waiting list for admission. Families with children with disabilities had few, if any services. They were faced with the tough choice of their child living in an institution miles away, or leading an isolated life at home.

The 12 founding families of Abilities United wanted their children to have the same rights and resources as everyone else – to share in community life and not be shut away from it. At the same time, Betty Wright was teaching children to swim in her backyard pool.  Betty realized that water was the great equalizer and leveled the playing field for children with and without disabilities.With these visionary founders, the community was mobilized and Abilities United was born.  The organization leased land from Santa Clara County and raised donations to build its first pre-school on Middlefield Road so that early childhood support services could begin.  This was quickly followed with a recreational program in 1966, then aquatics and respite services in 1969, all as a response to the needs of families in the community.

At the same time, significant public policies changed.  The state of California passed the Lanterman Act in 1969, creating a right to services for people with developmental disabilities. This was coupled with the civil rights movement led by Ed Roberts to create Centers for Independent Living across the country. Mass transportation, education and employment were made more accessible.  When the Americans with Disabilities Act was finally passed in 1990 President, George H.W. Bush said “Let the shameful wall of exclusion come tumbling down”.

Now, 50 years later, less than 3,000 people in California are living in institutions and over 240,000 receive services in the community. Abilities United is proud to be a part of this revolution.  We have grown from serving 12 children in 1963 to serving over 62,000 people with disabilities in our 50 years of service to the community. Our impact reaches far and wide because of all you have each done to help us fulfill our founders dream. I am sure our founders would be proud today to know that many of our children are getting a fast start on life with our help.  They would be pleased to know that many of our adults are employed in businesses you patronize; many more are living independently throughout our neighborhoods.
In our past 50 years, we, and the people we serve have demonstrated the significant contribution that people with disabilities can make in their community. Based on their needs to be the best they can be, they used the opportunities, resources and supports we created together. The dark ages of institutional care and exclusion from society are nearly over.

We now want to build on this solid foundation.  Help us work side by side with other organizations and individuals to ensure a future of full inclusion, where people with and without disabilities live, learn, work and play together.  So just take a moment to imagine the future with me….

  • Imagine Abilities United working with even more pre-schools, child care centers and school districts so that they can be fully equipped to ensure all children get the best start in life regardless of their disability.
  • Imagine Abilities United partnering with City Parks and Recreation departments so that afterschool programs are available for all children and parks are accessible to everyone.
  • Imagine a community where every employer is like Safeway and calls Abilities United first for qualified job applicants to fill their vacancies.
  • Imagine Abilities United becoming the regional or national training center for aquatics professionals so that many more swimming  pools have the capacity and skills to serve people with disabilities.
  • Imagine a community where  technology is available to everyone to help minimize the effect of a disability.
  • Imagine a community where people who are still bullying people with disabilities are required to report to our very powerful Abilities United self advocacy group to explain their behavior and change it.
  • Imagine people being defined for their abilities and not their disabilities.
  • Imagine no more excuses to justify segregation.
  • Imagine no more barriers.
  • Just imagine no SPECIAL anything any MORE!

With your continued help this future is within our grasp. Thank you.

Presented by Lynda Steele at the Abilities United 50th Anniversary Recognition party  on April 25, 2013.