The Power of Possibility

Thomas K.  Gilhool is a civil rights attorney and former Secretary of Education for Pennsylvania.  Ask anyone who knows Tom to describe him and you’ll hear words like ‘brilliant’, ‘passionate’, ‘dedicated’, ‘determined’.  In a career that has spanned over forty years, Tom’s landmark disability rights litigation proved that the prevailing disability models of treatment, rehabilitation and charity were outdated.  Instead, Tom argued time and time again, issues confronting people with Intellectual and other disabilities were a matter of civil rights; this new way of thinking was the cornerstone of the Disability Movement.

And therein lies my (ongoing) dilemma. So much work, so much history – is it reasonable to think that a career like Tom’s can be synopsized in a two hour interview?

The answer, of course, is ‘no’.  It would take many hours and many interviews to give a complete picture of Tom’s life, work, and the span of his influence.  The same can be said of all our interviewees.  And yet, our project is faced with some very real parameters. Visionary Voices is ambitious in scope (50 interviews by December of 2012), and our budget is limited.

During our interview, Tom said “The largest trap for the Disability Movement, for any movement, is summed up in a phrase… it made no sense to try because we wouldn’t have gotten anything”.  Tom’s words resonate with our project staff.  If disability is to be considered a valued aspect of diversity throughout civic life, we must initiate a conversation with the larger community around issues not often discussed outside the disability community.  The stories told by leaders of the Intellectual Disability Movement have the power to engage people with and without disabilities, and can serve as a starting point for these conversations.  While we cannot capture every facet of a person’s life and career, we work closely with each of our interviewees to uncover those pivotal moments that shaped their lives and defined a Movement.

My interview with Tom focuses on his role in Pennsylvania’s landmark Right to Education case, and the resulting PARC Consent Decree.  There are only a handful of people who can speak to the behind the scenes drama that surrounded this groundbreaking piece of legislation (Jim Wilson and Dennis Haggerty can be included in this group).  But Tom was the architect of the case, and therefore has a perspective unlike any other.  By speaking primarily to this topic, we learn about the work that would shape Tom’s career, and ultimately change the lives of people with disabilities, in Pennsylvania and across the nation.

I always leave our interviews wishing I could have asked more.  And yet, when I review our footage, and feel the power of history as told by those who lived it, I feel fortunate to have captured even a few of the moments that inspired a generation of advocates, families and people with disabilities. At the heart of each interview is the message of vigilance.   Budget cuts now threaten the very services and supports that allow people with disabilities to live independent lives in the community; at risk are the civil rights that Tom and others fought to secure.  In this interview, Tom invites us to relive his fascinating journey with PARC.  Forty years later, the case reminds us to think boldly, and focus not on limitations, but on possibilities.




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