History of People First

People First is part of the self-advocacy movement. The movement began in Sweden in 1968 when a Swedish parent’s organization for children with developmental disabilities held a meeting. The organization had the motto, “We speak for them,” meaning parents speaking for their children. The people at the meeting decided they wanted to speak for themselves and made a list of changes they wanted made to their services.

Over the next five years meetings like this took place in England and Canada. In November of 1973 the British Columbia Arc sponsored the first convention for the “mentally handicapped” in North America. The convention had for its theme “May We Have A Choice”. Two staff workers and three residents from the Fairview Hospital and Training Center in Salem, Oregon attended this convention. They came back to Oregon excited about the possibility of people with developmental disabilities speaking for themselves and organizing a similar convention.

The Canadian convention had been organized by professionals and the people from Oregon dreamed of a convention that was planned by people with disabilities, with assistance from advisors only when needed.

On January 8, 1974, the People First movement began in Salem, Oregon, with the purpose of organizing a convention where people with developmental disabilities could speak for themselves and share ideas, friendship and information. In the course of planning the convention, the small group of planners decided they needed a name for themselves. A number of suggestions had been made when someone said, “I’m tired of being called retarded – we are people first.” The name People First was chosen and the People First self-advocacy movement began. The first People First Convention was held in Oregon in October 1974 and 560 people attended. From this convention the idea of self-advocacy began to grow and spread. Within five years, Oregon had 1000 People First members, Nebraska, Washington and Kansas had growing memberships and people from 42 other states were asking for assistance to start their own groups.

In 1984 the first International Self Advocacy Leadership Conference was held in Tacoma, Washington. Since then, international conferences have been held in London, England (1988), Toronto, Canada (1993), Anchorage, Alaska (1998) and Northampton, England (2001).

Today, People First and the self-advocacy movement has grown into an international movement in 43 countries, with an estimated 17,000 members or more. In the United States alone, there are estimated to be well over 800 self-advocacy groups. Some of these are supported by local or state organizations, but many others are independent. In some states local groups have banded together and have formed statewide organizations. A national organization, Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, was formed in September 1991.

Many of these groups call themselves People First but others have different names like Speaking for Ourselves, United Together, or Advocates in Action.