Throughout much of its history, Memphis has led the way in providing services to adults and children burdened with intellectual disabilities. Collaborating with voluntary organizations as well as federal and state authorities, the Bluff City has provided assistance, dignity, education and work to thousands of its citizens with special needs.
Assisting handicapped Americans began when disabled soldiers returned home from the First World War without the skills needed to take care of themselves. In response to this, in 1918 Congress passed a law providing vocational rehabilitation for disabled veterans, which expanded two years later to include all handicapped citizens. Hundreds of people, including many in Tennessee, benefitted from vocational rehabilitation, especially after it became a permanent part of Social Security. However, the emphasis was on those with physical disabilities while ignoring people with intellectual limitations.
Troubled by this, a group of concerned Memphians formed the Memphis and Shelby County Council for Retarded Children (MARC) in the 1950s. After intensive lobbying, the city schools began offering special education classes - by 1962, the school system included 750 special education students. At the same time LeBonheur Children’s Hospital created the Child Development Center, which provided a thorough examination of intellectually disabled children while the Duration Club operated the Preparatory School at 2266 Union Avenue.
Wanting to create jobs for this population, the Council for Retarded Children joined with the Civitan Club in raising funds for a workshop where mentally disabled adults could experience the dignity of employment. Opened on Nov. 1, 1962, the Sheltered Occupational Shop (SOS) provided training and employment for hundreds of special needs teenagers and adults.
By 1973 there were two shops operating in Memphis that employed 169 people.
“They are human beings with needs and abilities, strengths and weaknesses, just like anyone else. We’re trying to utilize every ounce of their ability,” explained assistant director Nancy Piske.
Despite these efforts many special needs citizens never received any educational or employment opportunities because there was no legal right for them to attend school. Memphians changed that.
In the early 1970s, Thomas James joined forces with state Representative William K. ‘Tag’ Weldon to address this unequal treatment. Their efforts led to the passage of the Weldon Act in 1972 that required schools in Tennessee to provide education for disabled children. When the Tennessee General Assembly refused to appropriate the necessary funds, Legal Services of Memphis sued the state on behalf of disabled children. In 1977, Chancellor Ben Cantrell ruled that the state must implement a plan to educate all children in Tennessee.
“Our Constitution and the federal Constitution do not allow individuals or whole branches of government to ignore the law and discriminate against a helpless minority,” Cantrell declared.
In 1983, the Sheltered Occupational Shop merged with the Memphis and Shelby County Council for Retarded Children to form SRVS, which today is the “largest comprehensive service provider in Tennessee supporting individuals with developmental, intellectual and physical disabilities from birth throughout life.”
The staff that oversees the educational, employment and residential programs offered by SRVS combined with the dedication and hard work of those trammeled with special needs have made Memphis a leader in broadening opportunities for people who happen to have disabilities.
G. Wayne Dowdy is senior manager of the History Department, Memphis and Shelby County Room, Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.