The ReHabilitation Center was organized in Olean, NY, by a grassroots group of visionary parents of children with disabilities in 1957. Through their perseverance, hard work and advocacy, they were successful in providing educational and vocational training for children who otherwise would not have experienced the dignity and independence deserved by all people, with or without limitations.
The 1950s have been described as “The Dark Ages” for children with disabilities. Americans were fearful of people with disabilities. Prior to legislation requiring public education for children with cognitive or emotional disabilities, deafness, blindness or the need for speech therapy, parents had few options other than to educate their children at home or pay for expensive private education.
By 1957, the times began to change partly due to the rising awareness of the needs of children with disabilities through the advocacy efforts of parents like those who originated The ReHabilitation Center. On October 2, 1957, a handful of parents of children with disabilities met at Mrs. Victoria Reswick’s home to discuss the lack of options for their children. Mrs. Reswick, whose son James Guy Reswick had Down’s Syndrome, wanted to reach out to parents who shared her frustration. She placed an ad in the local Olean Times Herald, and the group that came together and started advocating for children immediately. They lobbied doctors and politicians and, in 1958, their organization became incorporated.
These dedicated parents insisted their children have access to an education and a means for socialization in their own community. They raised $500 and received permission from the Olean School Board to utilize a classroom in School 11. The training school opened on Jan. 6, 1958, with one teacher and a handful of children between the ages of 8 and 10.
They organized a local chapter of The Association for Help for Retarded Children. In addition to providing services to children with disabilities, they also worked to educate the community about disabilities to erase some of the misconceptions and irrational fears people had about people with disabilities.
Then, in 1961, when President John F. Kennedy created the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation, a far-reaching series of legislative decisions was set in motion which supported the group’s efforts and helped pave the way to full access to education and immersion in society for all people with disabilities.
Later in the 1960s, the Center became state-certified and was named The Cattaraugus County Association for Retarded Children. Fund-raising became a priority as enrollment figures at School 11 continued to climb. While working under an $11,000 budget, it held its annual fund-raiser and a scholarship fund to initiate a day camp.
Slowly, the times were shifting. Other parent groups around the country, also working to forge a better life for their children with disabilities, were emerging. By merging their advocacy efforts they effected significant change for children with disabilities often leading to legislation on behalf of special education. But, even before federal legislation was passed in 1975 mandating special education in the public school systems, New York State had earmarked start-up funds to train teachers for special education and offered aid to schools to establish classes for the developmentally disabled.
By 1969, 46 children and a dozen teachers were using the School 11 facility. Soon the group needed additional space for a central training center to accommodate its growing needs. A new center was set up in a wing of St. Elizabeth Motherhouse in Allegany. This location became known as the Cattaraugus County Association for Retarded Children’s Rehabilitation Center.
By 1971, the thriving center again needed more space, and the community stepped up to support it. St. Bonaventure University donated a plot of land to accommodate another facility while local developers began construction of a new building, breaking ground on what is today The ReHabilitation Center’s Nine Mile Road site in Allegany.
By the time the Center moved into its new home in 1972, it was providing a wide range of new services to people with disabilities, including a residential program, sheltered employment, outpatient therapy services and increased educational opportunities for preschoolers and adults.
In 1978, the agency was rebranded as The ReHabilitation Center of Cattaraugus County.
The Center was growing in size and scope. Its mission evolved to include services for people with physical disabilities and mental health diagnoses. The addition of an outpatient clinic in the newly constructed Allegany site provided occupational and physical therapy, speech, audiology to people with and people without disabilities.
By the end of the 1970s, The ReHabilitation Center’s work training center had blossomed into SubCon Industries and moved into its current location on North 15th Street in Olean. The business was expanded by 6,000 feet with a major addition in 1985. Today it provides employment and vocational training opportunities to about 220 workers. SubCon also supports the Employment Connection, a program that helps people with disabilities find and keep jobs in the community, and a Cleaning Services division that puts people with disabilities to work providing professional industrial cleaning contracts with local stores, offices and corporations.
The Center’s Residential Services’ program was also growing. In 1978, the The ReHabilitation Center had one residence for five men and seven women on West State Street. Throughout the 1980s, the agency added five houses in Allegany and Olean, serving both adults and children. By 1988, the agency was placing individuals with disabilities into the community in family environments with its unique Family Care program. Today, the Residential Services program supports hundreds of people with a wide array of housing options from supported living and supervised apartments to fully-supervised residential settings that are staffed 24 hours per day.
The Center’s special education program, which had always been the foundation of its efforts, evolved into the Children’s Learning Center. Its services came to include early intervention, special education and physical, occupational and speech therapy. In the 1990s, the Children’s Learning Center broke down barriers and evolved into integrated classroom settings. It began providing educational services to children with special needs in “traditional” classroom settings with their non-disabled peers. Its success is reflected in the public schools absorption of this model.
Today, The ReHabilitation Center is a dynamic, multifaceted agency that supports more than 700 people each day at more than 43 sites throughout Cattaraugus County and beyond. Its range of services is comprehensive. The day treatment programs, residential advisors, service coordinators and others impact every aspect of the program participants’ lives, including building basic living skills, providing or accessing needed therapies and treatments, improving socialization and community integration skills, and developing other skills that help the people they support become as independent as possible.
Since its initial response to the needs of a handful of children with disabilities, The ReHabilitation Center continues to forge new paths for people with disabilities to live with dignity and as much independence as possible in Olean, Allegany and Salamanca.