URBANA — A statewide campaign founded in 2004 to promote "full inclusion" for people with disabilities is shutting down, but the co-founder says she will continue its ground-breaking work through other venues.
Barbara Pritchard of Urbana created the grass-roots Campaign for Real Choice in 2004 with her husband, Lester Pritchard, a leading advocate in the disability rights movement in Illinois.
Mr. Pritchard, who had cerebral palsy, died in 2009, and his wife, who is visually impaired, said it's been difficult to replace his insight and gift for bringing people together. The campaign's latest organizer also took another job recently, so she decided not to replace him.
The campaign pushed the state to fund community-based services that allow people with disabilities, both physical and developmental, to live in their own homes rather than institutions. The Pritchards had the resources to buy an accessible home in Urbana and wanted others to enjoy that independence.
Their campaign organized a "freedom ride" in 2005, evoking the civil rights spirit of the 1960s, to push for an end to institutionalization. It fought alongside other groups to close large state-funded institutions, such as Howe Developmental Center, and give people with developmental disabilities more choice about what they want to do with their lives.
Pritchard said the landscape has changed in the last seven years for people with disabilities, with new advocacy groups emerging to lead the fight for independent living and state officials adopting many of the same goals.
"There's different leadership in this state," she said.
In response to a class-action lawsuit, the state also signed a consent decree expanding community living opportunities for people with developmental disabilities. The state now has six years to move people into the community who choose not to live in large facilities, she said.
"By no means is it done. If Lester was still alive, the campaign would be up and battling. But it's hard to be an organization of one," Pritchard said.
"People are starting to fill in some of the gaps that the campaign was starting to do. What I want to do is lend my support to those groups to continue their work," she added.
Pritchard cited the Illinois Self-Advocacy Alliance for Change, founded in 2009 by Jennifer Knapp, the campaign's first organizer, to bring together advocacy groups for those with developmental disabilities. It wants the state to develop more "self-directed" support programs, so that people with disabilities can be more involved in decisions about their lives — where they should live or whether they should work in a sheltered workshop, take a class at Parkland or volunteer at an animal shelter, Pritchard said.
Knapp said the Campaign for Real Choice re-energized the independent living movement and connected groups working on behalf of those with developmental and physical disabilities. The campaign, and Mr. Pritchard in particular, taught people to "hope again and have a vision of what the lives of people with disabilities can actually be like and to believe that we can make changes in Illinois," she said.
Pritchard recently filled Mr. Pritchard's seat on the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities and will continue to serve on the statewide Independent Living Council. She is former director of Persons Assuming Control of Their Environment, an independent living center in Urbana.
She will also continue working with a task force monitoring a new state managed-care program for low-income seniors and those with disabilities in Chicago's collar counties, which privatized their medical services through two HMOs.
The Campaign for Real Choice initially fought against the privatization, then pushed to include people affected by the change on an evaluation team and a task force created to sort out problems with implementation.
"I'm not going to go away," she said. "I feel like I still have more to give, and there's still problems. I need to do it in a different way that fits me.
"I'm comfortable in that it's the right decision at the right time, but it doesn't make it easy. To me it's like letting go of one more thing that was Lester," she said.