A Conversation With Tim Harrington

December 21st, 2020
A Conversation With Tim Harrington

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No individual has been connected to the Ability Center in a continuous capacity longer than Executive Director, Tim Harrington. Of the 100 years of our existence, he has been a part for 55 of them, beginning with his enrollment and participation in the inaugural class at Opportunity Kindergarten. To honor the Center’s 100th Anniversary, Dan Wilkins, Ability Center’s Director of Special Projects, sat down with Tim at the Edward Drummond Libbey home, site of our preschool from 1965 to 1980. Friends and co-workers since the mid-1980s, Dan sat down with Tim for an interview. Together they discovered stories of connection, some of Tim's favorite memories, his contributions, his pride for the Center its staff and accomplishments, and his vision for the future.

When Tim’s parents were told by professionals early in his life that he wouldn’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t, they balked at those assumptions and low expectations and instead paid the $10 monthly fee to enroll him in Opportunity Kindergarten, a new pre-school for children with disabilities located in the Edward Drummond Libbey home on Scottwood at Woodruff. It was a kindergarten operated by the Toledo Society for Crippled Children – the organization started by Rotarians who once ran the polio hospital - now known as The Ability Center.

Little did they, or he, know it was to be the beginning of a life-long association with an organization that has supported children and families with disabilities for a century.

With the support of the Libbey Home Foundation, the interview took place across an ornate table in the grand foyer of the home, a large central space with doors going off to a library and dining room, and a grand staircase with its classic columns and beautiful leaded stained-glass window commanding the entire north wall. Behind Tim was the massive, four-foot-wide front entry door. In photos from the 60s and 70s, the space we were inhabiting held a long, homemade, raised bed sandbox, filled with sand and toys. Built by Otto Kniffke, the long-time maintenance man for the Society, it sat on solid wooden legs and brought the level of the sand and toys to the height of a small child standing, perhaps in leg braces, or sitting in a wheelchair.

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DW: So, when you were here in 1965, there was a large sandbox right here in this space, right? Can you talk a little bit about your memories of this space?

TH: This was a playroom, so there would be nothing like having sand and finger paints and all types of craziness going on with a bunch of kids having fun.

DW: Well, this was the foyer – and pretty much the biggest room in the house.

TH: Yes, but at that time, really, the first floor of this house was basically fair game for whatever activities the kids were doing. So, we kept moving around.

DW: You were part of the inaugural class, the very first kindergarten class here in 1965 and 1966. The Society and teachers were learning on the fly as they went forward with this space. Can you recall an average day? What do you remember about any particular classes?

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TH: Well, now, you have to remember, “snack time” (laughs) was the best time. No. But there would be “book time,” where we would have stories, and we’d have play. We didn't know they were looking at our coordination and seeing if we were gaining new skills. We were just having fun. Kids with all types of disabilities, just playing and having fun.

DW: You were barely 5 when you were here, and I know you’ve told me you don’t remember much so we can move on. Speaking of playing, when school was out for the summer, the Society knew kids with disabilities were like every other kid. They needed an outlet for energy, growth, socialization, etc. They helped sponsor Camp Easter Seal. Can you reflect on that? Where was it held?

TH: Camp Easter Seal was held at Horace Mann School, which was, well, an old school that used to sit on Sylvania across from Christ the King church. They built a ramp up to the back door to get kids in and out. It really relied on youthful counselors and volunteers to make it run. A number of ladies from the (Society’s) Auxiliary supported the back-office operations and kept everyone in line. And Rotary, of course, would come out and support the camp as well.

It was great times. I think I went to camp there until I was 12 or so. The camp, at that time, ran the gamut of age, so there were much older kids too, young adults, actually. Over the years, they narrowed that age down to serving more kids than adults at camp.

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DW: I have photos of kids performing. Do you remember the talent shows?

 

TH: Big talent shows. I mean, there was a wonderful gymnasium with a stage. Of course, the stage wasn't accessible, so they had to lift chairs up and down to get kids onto the stage. You know, it’s interesting, kids with disabilities really didn't see themselves as having talents. So, with lots of coaching from counselors, they would be able to get up there and do their stuff. It was an opportunity for parents to come in and see their performances. I think many firsts took place on that stage.

DW: Do you remember any of the picnics held at Walbridge Park? We have a number of photos in our collection from the picnics. With a ton of families and kids, they look like they were a lot of fun.

 

TH: My recollection of picnics at Walbridge Park is that they would follow the final day of school at Feilbach School. [Where Tim went for grade school following his pre-school year at the Libbey home.] So, we would go to the zoo, and then we would go for a picnic at Walbridge Park, where Rotarians would host us. I remember them starting up baseball games in the grass and finding ways of entertaining the kids, including having classic cars come to the parking lot. It was really quite the event. Those were special times.

DW: My research has found these picnics were hosted by Dr. Burt Chollett [pronounced “Show Lay”], and his wife, Laura. Dr. Chollett was one of our founding Rotarian members, a doctor, nationally known and respected orthopedic surgeon, and Chief Medical Director of our Opportunity Home polio convalescent hospital. After the closing of the hospital, hosting the picnics was his way of continuing to remain involved with the organization and the kids it served. Photos also show there were boatrides?

 

TH: Yeah. I think it was actually “The Sandpiper,” which is still around today. I think that’s what they took us on. And again, accessibility was just different then. So, down to the dock you would go, but then they would pick kids up out of their wheelchairs and put them on the boat. So, you would pull away from the dock and there would be a half dozen empty wheelchairs (laughs) sitting there on the dock, which was pretty cool.

DW: Let’s move ahead in your life. After grade school and middle school at Feilbach, you moved on to Start High School.

 

TH: Yes.

DW: Was this a pretty mainstream experience? Did other classmates from Feilbach join you? Was Start the place for crip kids? What happened to your connection with TSCC at that time?

 

TH: My move from junior high to Start was an interesting time in my life. Most students who went to Feilbach remained on the path to finish their high school at Feilbach. I had lots of friends [from my neighborhood] who went to Start, so I was highly motivated to go to school with them. This was not something that was promoted by Feilbach. They liked keeping kids safe.

My folks were sort of pioneers in helping me make that transition. Remember, this was before any public law, and it was just the timing was right to take that next step. I think one other kid in a wheelchair had attended Start but, they too were learning on the run.

So, accommodations for me getting notes in class, using elevator keys to go from one floor to another … walking to take TARTA to school versus the yellow bus stopping in front of the house – all these were “firsts” … but I think it was probably one of the most important decisions my parents made.

DW: Let’s explore a little further this developmental time in your life. You mention your parents were pioneers. Can you talk a little bit more about your parents and what was the importance behind their motivation to move you and keep you in a mainstream school – ten years ahead of its time – as opposed to the norm at the time?

 

TH: I believe my motivation to go to school with my friends was a major factor in the discussions I had with my folks about school. They also had concerns about me being able to succeed in the real world and they thought ninth grade of high school would be a good place to start finding out. It was interesting because I had never been in a hallway full of students trying to switch classes. That was never part of my day. It sounds so crazy, but taking a tray of food through a cafeteria line … I had never done that in a school. So, there were very many firsts along the way.

Managing and advocating for myself to get assistance in getting notes for the day. And it's an interesting, interesting story. I said, you know, when I started off in high school, I had a tape recorder. The plan was I would tape record class during the day and then type out notes when I got home. I quickly realized this was way too much work. So, I would give a piece of carbon paper to the student sitting next to me in class and then, at the end of the day, I would have a copy of their notes for the day. I was also allowed to leave class three minutes before the bell rang so I wouldn't get swamped and stomped on in the hallway. These were simple, cost-free solutions, and they worked!

Like I said, there were just so many life firsts along the way, and I think the thing I appreciate most is that these are situations which kids these days are used to having – kids with disabilities in their school building and as part of their lunch period, or whatever. Those kids, back then, who I met in high school, they had never been around folks with disabilities. So, learning experiences all the way around.

DW: Did you at that time, then, kind of break away from the Crip scene … away from Toledo Society for Crippled Children?

 

TH: Well, it was interesting, because I was at Start for probably two years when they transitioned all Feilbach High School students to Start. So, I had sort of left the gang, and all of a sudden, the gang was back in the building. Very few of them attended mainstream classes. They just, basically, moved a segregated program from Feilbach to Start.

DW: Wow, same program, different space. The 70s wasn’t the best time for kids with disabilities in high school. Still issues today. Beyond the “figuring out” the day-to-day accommodations, how did it go? Were you accepted? Any favorite memories that helped to mold you?

 

TH: I didn’t have the discriminatory issues some have had. I was blessed to be welcomed into the Start High School family. I was blessed the coaches encouraged me to become team manager for the various teams over the year. I was blessed there were folks who could drive who would give me a lift home versus taking TARTA. Some of those friendships still exist today. So, I remember those as very fond times. It’s interesting because, even some people without disabilities remember high school as a very dark time when they may have been bullied or they didn't fit in, but I recall high school as very fulfilling. I was part of the baseball and basketball teams and they treated me like one of the guys, which is all I could ask for.

DW: Okay, so, as you’re sitting here talking about your high school experience and the people who helped you, I am reminded of another of your childhood stories, one highlighting the importance of friendship. For those reading this, let’s step back a half dozen years to our pre-teen years. Can you recount your story of learning to ride a bike? It is really an endearing metaphor for the importance of belonging and community.

 

TH: That’s an interesting story. So, for years I rode – just like I rode in this room in preschool – a big wheel bike as my mode of transportation. It got me where I needed around the neighborhood. As we boys got older in the neighborhood, big wheels were no longer cool. So, it was time for me to get a bike – a real bike. Well, all of the physicians, all of the physical therapists said, “Oh yeah. Go out and get a big tricycle and that will make darn sure that you’re safe and that you’re successful.” And I went back into my neighborhood with the guys and I said, “Guess what? I’m going to get a tricycle! You know, so we can all go ride around.” And they were, like, “No, no, no, no, no! No! We are not going to do that.”

 

Instead, we opted for a two-wheeled bike, and my dad had heavily welded training wheels made for this bike so I would never tip over. And again, my parents being the pioneers, just make it work, was the goal. We did the training wheels and we guys would go out riding around and, sooner rather than later, they said, “Tim – the training wheels are a distraction to whatever we're trying to do.” So, it was a bunch of 12-year-old boys who took the training wheels off and started pushing me up and down the sidewalk to teach me how to ride a bike. I would come home, and my mother would be on the porch with tape and gauze and she would tape me up. Knees, elbows … this was, like, a daily occasion and her motto was, “The doctor said ...” and every day I’d get, “The doctor said ... the therapist said ...” until one day I learned how to ride. And my parents were, like, “Okay. So maybe they’re not always right.”

It was a bunch of 12-year-old boys that did what the doctors said you couldn’t or shouldn’t do. This is the value of community. This is the value of looking outside the box, and now, when I reflect on how much riding that bike was a part of my quality of life, it was my new way to get to school. It was my new way to go visit friends, and, if I'd stuck with what the professionals said, it would have never happened.

DW: Thank you for indulging me with that story. Simply put, it really is why we are working so hard to create welcoming, disability-friendly communities – so all kids (and adults) in all neighborhoods have such opportunities to grow up knowing of, befriending and supporting each other.

 

So, when did you reconnect with the organization? Was that when you came on board as a camp counselor?

TH: Yeah. It was really when I was a camp counselor – my senior year of high school, and, you know, this organization is sort of like a big magnet. (laughs) It keeps pulling you back!
And then I coached “CP Sports” for a number of years. It seemed like every time the Center had a new idea, they would come to Tim and say, “Hey! (laughs) Will you try this out?” So, I was blessed.

DW: At this time, it was TSH, right? “Toledo Society for the Handicapped.”

 

TH: Yes, TSH.

DW: At this time in your life and career, we weren't in our current building on Monroe Street. We were still working out of this building [the Libbey Home]. The current building came in 1980. Talk a little about that transition. Did you have thoughts when you came back to this building.

 

TH: It was 1978. This was still the headquarters, so, Board meetings and stuff like that would take place here, but, at 18, I was more focused on getting a summer job. I mostly remember the new building.

DW: Okay, let’s move on to the camp counselor days. In particular, let's talk a little bit about Chris.

 

TH: Chris who?

DW: You know. “The” Chris.

 

TH: (laughs)

DW: Let's talk a little about, you know, how that all unfolded, how you two met. I mean, you were married on the bridge – now called the “Harrington Bridge.” We have photos of that as well. Talk about your experience with the organization and how that brought you two together and – it's really become part of the organizational lore.

 

TH: It really is a story. Chris was interested in pursuing education – special education – so she was a counselor in this house as well, for Camp Squawker. So, we never really crossed paths until Camp Cricket, which was started on our current grounds in 1980, when the current building was opened. The year we met, 1984, I was the Camp Director, and she was a counselor. 36 years and two kids later, I guess, the rest is history. But, you know, finding your soulmate is big, she had the same values towards disability, understanding, and acceptance, that made that possible.

DW: What made you decide to get married on the bridge?

 

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TH: It was just natural. I mean, we both sort of saw that as our meeting place, and, it was very representative of our values, and the opportunity to have people – from our families and friends come to that location and see what the Ability Center was like was cool. And it also made darn sure (laughs) that we had accessibility at our wedding – that was important for us as well.

DW: So, you did college at University of Toledo. You were in a fraternity, got a business degree, all of that. Again, you found your way back to TSH. Like you said, they kept pulling you back in … (laughs)

 

TH: Yeah. Pretty much.

DW: TSH – where you were, like, the token guy. They knew you. They probably thought, “If Tim can do it …”

 

TH: Yeah, if he doesn’t screw it up, it must be okay.

DW: Yeah, yeah. (both laugh) Can you reflect on your path at that time? What was going on at the center – you know, disability stuff in general, at the center and in the world? What were the important issues? You said they pulled you in to try new things. What were some of those things? What made the Ability Center – TSH at the time – such a progressive organization?

 

TH: Well, I think if we’re celebrating our 100th year, and we look at an organization that survives 100 years, it’s really their ability to innovate and to change with the needs of the consumer – and I think the Ability Center stands out an as organization that has done that. I always say, if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

I think this organization continues to reflect that idea. The needs of the people we served 20 years ago are different than they are today. When we talk about the ADA generation, and the fact that there are now adults who were born after the ADA, and then when you think about us old geezers who remember the fights over buses, over curb cuts, over accessibility issues, and over outright discrimination in employment, or what have you, the newer generations may not have lived through it, but they are certainly benefactors of the work we did long ago.

DW: Just for kicks, and, well, for context, run through some of your titles as you progressed up the Ability Center ladder. We’ve established you started with us as a preschooler, followed by summer camper – a recipient of our services.

 

TH: Staff-side, I was a camp counselor and Director. I did recreation advocacy – working with other providers in the community to create recreation opportunities. I was a housing advocate, working with housing developers to secure more accessible housing. At this time, I also worked side-by-side with consumers who were living in inaccessible homes. I helped them find places better suited to their needs. Um, I was a development director ...

You know, a lot of people would say I just simply can’t keep a job. (laughs)

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When I think back as we talk about my years with the center, I think I’ve basically been in just about every role or in every department there is, so, I truly benefit from having that amazing, one-of-a-kind background.

DW: I totally agree. It is a comprehensive, inside understanding of each role and its intricacies. It’s the stuff, I always say, you can’t get from a book, or a class – the OJT stuff. So, speaking of every role, you stepped into the “corner office” in 2000. Talk a little bit about that period, how you felt stepping into that position, the weight of it, your responsibility. What did it mean to you?

 

TH: Hmmmmm. Well, I was certainly blessed with opportunity. The role of executive director of the Ability Center carries a lot of responsibility. The one that means the most to me is being the voice of the disability community. I am so proud of this center because, as that voice, we don’t let a lot slip by. It is our responsibility to pay attention and offer our knowledge, support, or candor, when necessary. I believe strongly, if we didn't speak up, no one would, so, I think being that voice is critical to the organization. Being a longstanding organization run by and voiced by people actually living with disabilities just adds to our credibility, let’s call it our “Crip Cred.”

I think we have, locally and on a state and national level, demonstrated “best practices” in community advocacy and in a number of our program designs. We have provided some real innovative programming to consumers that other centers abroad have taken and run with because it's “best practice.”

DW: Any thoughts on the whole of it? Have you ever really sat back and thought about this arc of going from preschooler – here in this building – to the head of the … (laughs) … head of the organization? Have you ever really thought about that and, like, what a journey?

 

TH: Well, it’s sort of surreal. It’s sort of like knowing that … that even today our expectations for folks with disabilities to, um, step up, becomes a barrier to our community. And the fact that I was given opportunities to demonstrate what’s possible – those opportunities were provided by the other people. So, the number of people who opened doors for me led to today. It’s all on them for where we are today, and, I think – aspirationally – we need to continue to see folks provided with opportunities to overachieve. That, too, is a role of the Ability Center -- to ensure those opportunities are created and take place.

DW: Speaking of aspiration, I have a favorite photo of you with Nick Hyndman sitting behind your desk, in your chair as a little boy with CP. I’ve always seen it as kind of representative of all you're saying now. Nick is now pushing 30, married with a new baby, in a management position with Amazon. Homeowner. Living the dream. Of course, he had a family who instilled in him a “follow your dream and don’t take no for an answer” mentality, but you were someone in his eyes with a similar disability, in a position of importance, encouraging him, as his parents did, to believe in himself – to know his worth and potential.

 

Being a role model carries some weight and responsibility, too. Talk a bit about being a role model.

TH: When I think about folks who are now coming into their own, understanding I may have been the only person with CP they ever met who was successful, um, when you are considering your future, you have to be able to see what it’s like down the road. I think, for all of us with disabilities, we need to understand the next generation is looking at us, and they can identify with us with greater possibility now than maybe what we saw back 40 years ago. It’s sure hard to go places anymore and not run into folks with disabilities working in non-traditional jobs, or who have important roles in the community. I mean, think about it. We have legislators in Washington DC now living with significant disabilities working in the US Capitol! And who would have thunk 30 years ago this would be the case?

So, I see a great vision for the future, for folks with disabilities, where, more and more, they will be part of everyday life, and you will see them in many different roles – and the work we do today to help make our communities work for everyone just improves on that potential and possibility.

DW: As I understand your story, when you came on as Executive Director, you joined Rotary Club of Toledo. You weren’t already Rotary were you?

 

TH: During my interview to be CEO, the interviewers, who were also Rotarians, said, “Tim, if you take this job, you know you’ll be a Rotarian.” (laughs). So, there was not a lot of choice in that decision, but, definitely a move I have very much enjoyed and from which I’ve gained a lot of value over the past 23 years.

DW: This 23-year relationship with today’s Rotary has actually brought them back into the fold with us, too, in my observation. I mean, I know the men who gave you the pre-hire “request” were Rotarians ... but though Rotarians started this organization, my research has found a bit of a divergence in the last half of the century. There was a time when it was required a majority of the board members be Rotarians. Somewhere, something may have – if not disconnected – at least stretched thin. Your presence and participation remind them of their original dream. Can you talk about that?

 

TH: Well, the fact that Toledo Rotary gave birth to this organization, I think is something to be celebrated. And, of course, as time goes by and people change, those memories fade. My role with Rotary has been to remind them of what greatness they did help develop and the fact that, even today, Rotary has a role in improving the lives of people with disabilities. Obviously, their international agenda continues to be the eradication of polio. My role is to remind them what’s possible locally and to continue to engage them in “service above self.”

DW: You’ve been at the helm now for almost 20 years. The center has gone through a number of changes, good and bad. We have had successes and failures. Satellite offices, a Personal Care Attendant program, the Disability Studies program at University of Toledo, the incorporation and growth of the Assistance Dogs program. We have made a hell of a difference, as you have said. Great community partnerships built over time. Systemic change through advocacy. What stands out to you? What are you most proud of? What are your thoughts on reaching 100 years and the rich history of our board and staff? What are your hopes for the future? Where do you hope to see us in 25, 50, 100 years?

 

TH: You should ask more questions at once. (laughs) I really believe just having the ability to take the organization in directions that solve new problems has been a blessing for this center. Sometimes we are not as successful as we would like to be, but there are some benchmarks along the way – like moving the 850 people out of nursing homes and back into the community – that I think are stellar. And I think whenever you can give people the opportunity to increase their independence and their self-worth – and the center can be part of that – it’s a big win.

With regard to where we are today, I think we have a huge opportunity to take the initiatives of our organization – ideas developed and processed inside our walls – and make them part of a community discussion about inclusion in community, and in other public and private organizations. What we are finding from our initial overtures is that, far more often than not, these organizations demonstrate they are ready and excited to look at solutions.

So, when I look at 10 to 20 years down the road, I continue to see the Ability Center as the matchmaker, as the one reminding the community we are all in this together, and, as important members at the table, that they need to own part of the discussion as well.

DW: It’s been an honor and a pleasure rolling a lot of this road with you as both friend and fellow advocate. What do you say we go take on the next century of service?

 

TH: Onward!

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