Skip to main content

Jim Wilson: A Leading Force in the Fight for Disability Rights

By Sarina Mam

As an influential visionary, Jim Wilson has dedicated over 50 years of relentless advocacy to the fight for disability rights. Read his story of passion and perseverance during a transformative juncture in disability rights history.

Nofre Vaquer, CEO of SpArc Philadelphia (L) and Jim Wilson, Board member of The Arc of Philadelphia (R).

This year, we were pleased to announce that The Arc of Philadelphia awarded Jim Wilson the Eleanor Elkin Lifetime Achievement Award for his endless support of individuals with disabilities.

As a passionate visionary, Jim is a perfect example of a tireless, dedicated, and influential force in the disability rights movement. Throughout his time, before and beyond, serving as President of PARC, President of the Board of The Arc national office, and a member of the Board of Directors of The Arc of Philadelphia, Jim has relentlessly advocated for full inclusion and equal rights and opportunities for all people with disabilities.

As a Philadelphia native, Jim grew up in Center City with his mother, father, and younger brother, Lowell, who had Down Syndrome. When he was 11 years old, Jim’s father passed away leaving pressure on his mother to send Lowell to a state-run institution, where many individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) were sent and treated inhumanely. Despite this pressure and being a newly single parent, Jim’s mother refused to institutionalize Lowell. As one of the founding members of The Arc of Philadelphia, his mother fought relentlessly to advocate for equal rights for individuals with disabilities. 

In an interview on Visionary Voices, a project of Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities, Jim reflected on his mother’s efforts to establish normalcy and equality within their family.

“My mother was a single parent and the family was a normal family. She did not discuss with me the fact that Lowell was different… We went along with the understanding that, well, Lowell was just as I was, the same.” 

During Jim’s youth, children with IDD, like his brother Lowell, did not have access to public education. Jim recalled,

“This was a time of great desperation because folks who were handicapped up until that point were kind of pushed aside in backrooms. There was no schooling, there was no training. There was really no acceptance in the community.”

By growing up side by side with Lowell and seeing firsthand the lack of equal opportunities, rights, and access to education that people with disabilities experienced, Jim’s passion for disability advocacy was fueled and ignited.

Jim Wilson (Center) reflects on the monumental strides of The Arc during the Disability Rights movement with members of The Arc of Philadelphia and SpArc Philadelphia.

Influenced by the Civil Rights movement and his familial experiences with his mother and brother, Jim became involved as a board member of The Arc of Philadelphia. At this time, very few siblings of people with IDD were involved with The Arc of Philadelphia as it was initially established by parents who sought better services for their children with developmental and other disabilities. Jim named one other sibling who was involved with The Arc at the time,

“George Horowitz became involved with The Arc just about the same time that I did. He had a brother who was disabled, and we became good pals… he eventually became President of the Philadelphia Association and played a leading role in the association’s initiatives and activities going forward. But outside of George, I don’t recall even one other sibling at the local or even at the state level who was involved in The Arc."

After years of service for The Arc of Philadelphia, Jim became President of PARC in 1969, during a transformative time in disability rights history as pressure grew to close Pennhurst, a state-run institution for individuals with disabilities known for its inhumane treatment and deplorable conditions.

In May of 1969, Jim attended a state convention in Buck Hill, Pennsylvania to bring awareness to the horrendous conditions at Pennhurst. While others sought to funnel millions to improve its conditions, Jim, other members of PARC, and delegates from various counties across Pennsylvania focused on closing the controversial institution completely, plastering the rooms with large pictures depicting the dehumanizing conditions at Pennhurst. Many of those at the convention were parents of individuals with disabilities, with some of them hesitant about Pennhurst’s closure. Despite his strong stance on its closure, Jim still held compassion for them,

“Even to this day, I have the greatest empathy for those parents who were really quite afraid of us taking the course that we wanted.”

As more and more attention to the case grew, Tom Gilhool, a civil rights poverty law attorney, prompted The Arc to host a seminar that helped train those interested in taking action against similar discriminatory legislation. This led Jim to organize with Stu Brown, the chair of PARC’s legal advocacy committee at the time, to hold a daylong seminar where approximately 50 people from all over the country came together to learn the dynamics of their case. While looking back at this defining moment, Jim noted,

“I remember at the very end, overhearing several people saying as they left to go back home, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to get this started in our state, we’ve got to do this now.”

Shortly after PARC v. Pennsylvania, twenty-seven federal lawsuits involving the intersection of disability and education were filed, resulting in the federally mandated legislation that grants all individuals with disabilities equal access to free and appropriate public education.

While his tenure as President of PARC concluded in 1971, Jim’s involvement with The Arc and his revolutionary efforts of strengthening the rights, resources, and support for people with IDD spans more than 50 years. He has lived an exciting, ambitious, and extraordinary life, later serving as President of The Arc national office and as a board member of The Arc of Philadelphia.

As an influential visionary, we are honored to award Jim Wilson the Eleanor Elkin Lifetime Achievement Award for his decades of relentless advocacy for full inclusion and equal rights and opportunities for all people with disabilities. Although there is still much work to be done to achieve full equality, Jim reminds us that,

“The moments of desperation were far overshadowed by  moments of triumph and happiness that we were able to do what we did and we were part of this huge movement that made it possible for these folks to have civil rights.”

Jim Wilson's five-chapter interview with Visionary Voices, a project by Temple University Institute on Disabilities can be found here. Learn about the initiatives of The Arc of Philadelphia and how to get involved here.

Neurodiversity in the Workplace Partner Organizations