Dennis Heath and the People First Movement

Ellery Smith , student writer

Imagine your doing the everyday task of running errands and you are just walking around the store trying to find the item you came for and all around you people point or stare saying “Look there’s a retarted person.” That was the daily struggle for mentally disabled people. 

But inside The Peoples First Movement, they found a community that was made up of people like them and accepted them. The People First Movement was started at Fairview Institution in Salem, Oregon by Dennis Heath, now 81 years old. He was a large part of getting the movement off the ground but he never wanted the spotlight. 

“ I had the ongoing feeling that I needed to be in the background, that I didn’t want people to say ‘Oh, Dennis, you’re great because you’re doing this. I wanted them to say that about the people. So I was always behind the curtains,” Heath said. 

Nevertheless, his role and impact in the Peoples First movement was expansive. He would help to orchestrate the conventions and get them the support they needed to keep everything running smoothly. He also ran interference between the members of People First and the outside community. Because the community around them was not as welcoming as they are today. 

[They] Were called imbeciles by the law, and nobody really ever listened to them,” Heath said. “The people in the Mental Health Division were kind of leery about the handicapped speaking out for themselves.”

The people that were living in these institutions had no rights, according to the law and we were always being controlled by someone. 

“ A lot of them were controlled by their parents. And the institution had a controlling factor on them,” said Heath. 

Despite the initial pushback against them, the movement grew all over the country and the world. All of a sudden there were divisions in Washington, Oregon, Montana, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea. Heath and the members of People First got many opportunities to travel all over the world to talk about what they had created and the legacy they were leaving behind. 

“We got to go to Japan for a week and help this new division of People First get the resources and support they needed to get off the ground. We got to see the sights and it is something I will never forget.”

This feeling that he was helping them leave an impact on not only their lives, but the way our culture looked at mentally disabled people was there from day one when he came to Oregon from Kansas and started working with the people at Fairview. But it really sparked at a conference in British Columbia.

  “We went to British Columbia for a convention of quote, mentally retarded people, what we found out is that the people, the professional people did all the talking. And the people who are developmentally disabled weren’t saying anything,” said Heath 

Heath says he was inspired by the disabled people he worked around. He made many lasting friendships with many of the people and still is in contact with them. They encompass many of the memories that stick in Heath’s head. 

“ I saw the excitement in their eyes and when they got together at conventions, they ran it. They were in control of it.” 

The People’s First movement gave its members a voice that for so long was not something they had. They were no longer their disability but a person first. 

“The impact that was made was that the people felt proud of themselves and they knew that they had a right to say what they want to say they didn’t have to be controlled,” Heath said, “So it kind of like they released their chains and felt like hey, I’m somebody.”

That was the whole goal of the movement: people finally feeling like they were more than their disability. They were getting acceptance and able to close the institutions that had shackled them for so long. They were somebody. 20 years after he joined the movement Heath decided it was time to retire. 

“The people had moved out of the institution and had grown up and it was hard. The role of the helpers, what  I called myself, was the helper to help the process move along. Not to take control but help it.”