The Ollie Webb Story

[ Music ]

Narrator: Born at the end of the Great Depression into a family of migrant workers, Ollie Webb was different from her 13 brothers and sisters. She was often the target of cruel jokes. It was easy to take advantage of her. People called her "retarded."

Ollie: I didn't have no good life when I was a kid. And they take me out school to pick cotton. I can pick cotton. I had got up to fifth grade, they take me out and said I can't learn how to do anything.

Narrator: Her family committed Ollie at age 19 to the Beatrice State Developmental Center. In those days, Beatrice was where people like Ollie were sent when their families couldn't care for them. People at Beatrice were sentenced to life without hope, without freedom, and without meaning. Their crime? Being mentally retarded.

Ollie: But I was on the main building — building institution. I was taking care of little babies. Water babies, boo babies, everything else. I just watched it. I had two little kids died in my arms. I took care of 'em best I know how.

Narrator: In the 1950s, a movement began to end the widespread practice of incarcerating people in large institutions because they were retarded. Organizations and agencies were created throughout the United States to develop appropriate residential, educational and vocational programs for people with disabilities.

In Omaha, GOARC, the Greater Omaha Association for Retarded Citizens, was formed. Eventually laws were written to ensure equal opportunity for people with handicaps. State and local organizations assigned workers to locate people who were being denied basic human rights because of their disabilities. Tom Miller found Ollie Webb.

Tom Miller: First time I met Ollie was in 1969, and Ollie was working in the basement of a home that had been set up as a nursing home, and I was assigned to work with persons who had been placed out of Beatrice State Developmental Center and had been placed in various locations throughout Omaha.

I was able to find a friend of mine, Betty Wiltshire was her name, and Betty agreed to live with Ollie and a couple other women, and she helped them by taking them to the store for grocery shopping and teaching them how to cook.

Narrator: Those cooking classes led to a job Ollie held for 17 years, a job with competitive pay, and decent hours.

Ollie: The Field Club, and I worked out there 17 years, and... and I made salads and I made sandwiches, made soup, do the... wash pots, pans. You name it, I done it out there at The Field Club. One time they come in and Lee Hall said, "I'm going to take you off salads." I said, "Why?"

"Cuz you can't read." I said, "Make no difference, you can make salads and sandwiches and everything else." I said, "Make no damn difference." I said, "I worked here eight years making sandwiches." Well I got The Field Club behind me. he up and went bye-bye, and I stayed.

My life now is better 'cuz... 'cuz I got people standing behind me. They push me going out in the world, the right way to do things.

Narrator: Forced to retire by a heart attack, Ollie still leads a full and productive life. She has a good relationship with her daughter Nancy, who also lived at Beatrice for a time

Ollie owns her own home and through the years has had boarders. She has many friends and an active volunteer life. Ollie has traveled as far as England to encourage self-advocacy in people with disabilities. She is an outspoken advocate.

Ollie: I say you can make up your cotton pickin' mind, you can do anything. Speak out. That's what we trying to do. All of us.

Narrator: Ollie's family had few choices in trying to find a place for her in the world they knew. Jean Sigler, Executive Director of the organization that was formerly GOARC, comments.

Jean: Her story is so unique. She's made so much out of a life that could have ended in tragedy and ashes, come so far in the community that she lives in from where she began that she's just the embodiment of our mission and why we're here and what we want to help other people accomplish in their lives.

Jean: When you have child with a disability, immediately you are faced with needing to deal with a maze of services and systems that are not and never have been a part of your life before. You have no idea where to go for help, what kind of help you even need. Our organization provides parents with that kind of information that they need to get the best possible services they can for their son or daughter.

When you have this kind of help, it isn't quite so overwhelming to think of providing support to your child all the way through their adult years, because there's somebody and something there to back you up.

Narrator: This, then, is why, when it came time to leave that sad word "retarded" to history, the Greater Omaha Association for Retarded Citizens was renamed "The Ollie Webb Center," to remind us that people should be known by their names and accomplishments, not by their disabilities.

Ollie: I gave it to you. I'm same as like you. I got a name, and I want y'all calling me my name. My name is Ollie Mae Webb.