Early Leaders: Betty Williams
“How you say it and what you say to people, even in the middle of whatever you’re going through, all your adversity, there are people out there who need your message, who are listening.”
Betty Williams was recovering from a long illness when she received the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities Champion of Equal Opportunity Self-Advocacy Award in 2016. “I left the nursing home for a couple of days to come and get that award,” she recounted in an interview later that year. She recalled how important it was to the self-advocates in the audience to witness her persistence.
“A true champion of the self-advocacy movement,” as The Arc of Indiana described her after her death in 2018, Betty was a leader both in her state and at the national level. She was appointed to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities by Barack Obama, serving on the boards of Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and The Arc of the United States. She was also a member of numerous boards at the state level.
“I was the person who sat or stood in the back of the corner and didn’t talk to people.”
Betty Louise Williams was born in Richmond Indiana in 1959, where she attended public schools. She was bullied by other students and under-challenged in separate, special education classes. “Right after I graduated, I sat at home. I sat at home for nine years.” Then a sheltered workshop saw her potential. “They were going to give me some job skills and send me on my way, but eight months turned into 20 years or so.” She did credit the workshop with giving her skills and confidence. “I was the person who sat or stood in the back of the corner and didn’t talk to people.”
She began her journey to national leadership when a sign on the workshop wall announced meetings of a newly formed group of local self-advocates. It was Darcus Nims, “my friend, my mentor, my trainer,” who recognized Betty had the makings of a leader. Betty became involved with Self-Advocates of Indiana soon after the organization started. Darcus later told Betty she knew immediately that she had to have Betty on her team. “We just clicked.”
“She was a strong willed lady who would not back down.”
Betty was very proud of her involvement in getting Indiana’s MRDD commission to remove the demeaning “R” word from its name. Suellen Jackson-Boner, former director of the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities, describes Betty as a tough negotiator for the cause of self-advocacy. “She was a strong willed lady who would not back down. She was able to solve an issue by coming at it from different angles, her persistence and patience in getting to yes was one of her biggest assets.”
Betty understood that empowerment can be subverted by good intentions. “There is a difference between standing here and helping us and teaching us how to do something, versus somebody who takes over and does it for us, because that way we are not learning how to do the work.”*
In 2006, The Arc of Indiana hired Betty in a professional capacity. She remained there for 12 years and was Self-Advocacy Training Coordinator at the time of her death at age 59. Although she didn’t live to “retire like normal people” as she’d planned, Betty never ceased speaking up for the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities.