HARTFORD — A “champion advocate” for people with developmental disability has announced that he will resigned from the HARC, Inc., an organization serving people with intellectual and related disabilities.
HARC President and CEO Dr. Stephen Becker will retire on July 12, 2013.
Becker, who began his career at HARC in 1977, first became interested in the field of developmental disabilities as an undergraduate at City University of New York at Queens College, working summers at a sleep-away camp for special needs children.
“I was fascinated to see just how much the children could learn in the eight weeks at camp, when everything was geared toward an intensive learning experience,” Becker said upon reflection earlier this week. ”After one summer I was hooked and went back to work at the camp for four more summers. I loved working with the children and their families, but was terribly saddened to see a few of the campers return to large state institutions after these fantastic summers of learning. Because of that, I broadened my training to include a greater focus on the nature and needs of people with intellectual disability.”
While pursuing a master’s degree from the City University of New York at Brooklyn College, Becker taught special education at the junior high level and later worked as the recreational director at an organization serving people with neurological disorders.
He then pursued a doctoral degree at Columbia University in order to gain expertise in all areas of learning, cognition, sensory and perceptual development. When he saw an expose by Geraldo Rivera on Willowbrook, an institution for children with intellectual disability on Staten Island profiling the horrible conditions there, he launched his advocacy work in the field. (Willowbrook was closed in 1987 due to public outcry.)
“The past 36 years at HARC have been an incredible period in our quest to create social change for individuals and families challenged by intellectual disability. Through advocacy and litigation, it became universally clear that isolating people in large institutions, sometimes numbering 5,000 and more, was a tremendous over-reaction to this disability and was frequently fraught with abuse and neglect,” Becker said.
He continues, “I have been blessed to work during this particular time in history as we joined hands to shape and actualize the dreams expressed by self-advocates and their loved ones. What a glorious ride it has been to observe how good life could be: children off to a good start with early intervention; students attending neighborhood schools; people living in the community close to family and friends; presence and participation in community activities; the joy of having a job and being part of the American workforce. It has been a veritable renaissance, a flurry of innovation and celebration, energizing us forward to a new frontier.”
According to HARC’s board chair, Patrice Calnen, Vice President, Underwriting and New Business, Lincoln Financial Group, Becker was instrumental in helping to bring about changes.
“During Dr. Becker’s extraordinary 36-year tenure at HARC, tremendous strides were made for individuals and families challenged by intellectual disability. Where our loved ones had been warehoused in large institutions, usually in horrible conditions with a bare minimum of custodial care, they now began to live in neighborhood group homes and attend day programs featuring development, teaching and support. HARC also helped public perception of this disability change from the idea of ‘deficiency’ to the idea of ‘level of support’ needed in various aspects of life.”
When asked if he has any disappointments, Becker said: “I am quite happy with the progress that has been made in the initiation of supportive services spanning a lifetime. However, I am very concerned for the families who continue to struggle with the worry of ‘Who will take care of my child when I am gone?’ It is troubling that in this day and age funding is still an issue, particularly in the area of residential services.”
Becker’s friend and colleague, Dr. Janis Abrams Spring, sums up Becker’s coming transition aptly. “With great compassion, intelligence, and a delightful sense of humor, Steve Becker has been a champion advocate for families facing intellectual challenges. Wherever he goes next, the people around him will be blessed.”