The ARC of the United States is a nonprofit organization advocating for people with intellectual disabilities (see cognitive and intellectual disability). Established in Minneapolis in 1950 as the National Association of Parents and Friends of Mentally Retarded Children by a committee of local parent associations, its first president was Alan Sampson. The organization has undergone several name changes since, including the National Association for Retarded Citizens (197381) and the Association for Retarded Citizens (198192). Its current name was adopted in 1992. Members initially focused on the lack of educational opportunities for their children, the difficulty of getting people into state institutions, and the quality of care provided.
Two incidents raised public awareness about intellectual disabilities in the organization's early years. In 1950 Pearl Buck published The Child Who Never Grew about her daughter with an intellectual disability and, in 1953, Dale Evans Rogers published Angel Unaware about her daughter born with Down syndrome, and donated royalties from the book to the organization. By 1964 the group counted more than 100,000 members, making it one of the largest disability organizations in the country. The ARC had grown by 2008 to more than 140,000 members and claimed to be the largest community-based organization of and for people with intellectual disabilities.
A review of the ARC's early programs indicates that the focus lay on issues related to children and families, including school admission, access to and improvement of state institutions, and research into prevention of mental retardation. Responding to changes in disability activism, the organization in recent years has broadened its mission statement and opened its leadership to include adults with intellectual disabilities.
By the 1970s the organization became involved in lawsuits aimed at ending mistreatment in institutions. It supported the movement toward deinstitutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities. During this time, the organization used insider tactics to influence policy, namely testimony, research, and lobbying rather than protest or demonstration. It used a similar approach in 1990 in lobbying for the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Three areas are emphasized nationally now: public policy advocacy, research into the prevention of intellectual and developmental disabilities (see developmental disability) and integration of people with disabilities into society, and raising public awareness of these issues. It supports Social Security payments to people with intellectual disabilities and expansion of the 1973 Vocational Rehabilitation Act. At the state level, member units have been active in the development of plans promoting employment and education.
The ARC's relationship with the broader disability rights movement has been complex. Founded as a parent organization, its viewpoint generally reflected this population more than those it served. Critics also point to its lackluster response to reports of conditions inside institutions during the 1960s. The ARC encouraged only better oversight and improved programs for people in residential care during that decade; not until the 1970s did it advocate broader deinstitutionalization. Still, the organization was an early advocate of community living for people with intellectual disabilities, a position embraced by disability activists in the Independent Living Movement.
Strategies for promoting employment represents another area of contention. The ARC strongly advocated for employment of people with developmental disabilities, but early efforts resulted in inappropriate placements in repetitive, low-skill jobs providing little fulfillment and income. The organization continues to counter this criticism, noting that it was one of the sole advocates for people with intellectual disabilities before the 1980s, bringing attention to issues such as housing and appropriate education and employment for people with intellectual disabilities.
The ARC has been active recently in supporting policies providing respite care and removing discrimination against people with disabilities (such as a law proposed in Hawaii to remove the bar on voter registration for people with mental retardation). The organization has also supported federal bills requiring the inclusion of people with disabilities in emergency management and disaster relief planning (see disasters and disaster recovery) and an appropriation supporting housing programs for people with disabilities. The ARC has taken an active role in advocating protection of the rights of criminal suspects with intellectual disabilities, arguing against the death penalty and for safeguards for people with intellectual disabilities as suspects, defendants, or witnesses in criminal proceedings. The ARC issued position statements in 2004 opposing physician-assisted suicide in alignment with the mainstream disability movement.
The ARC's role in disability history demonstrates the importance of families and activists, as well as the evolving understanding of citizenship, rights, and identity.