Jim Healey was a two-sport all-state athlete in high school and the sparkplug of a South Providence sandlot baseball team that won five age-graded championships from 1953 to 1957.
A fierce competitor in collegiate and professional sports, Jim was noted for his “hustle.” Fortunately for those whose cause he championed through life, that hustle and persistence only intensified.
Jim Healey’s unprecedented accomplishments over a 45-year career in the field of developmental disabilities made him one of the nation’s leading pioneers in that arena.
Raised in South Providence, Jim graduated from St. Michael’s School, LaSalle Academy, and Providence College. Then he earned a master’s degree in special education from the University of Connecticut. In the early 1960s, he taught special education in Warwick, including participation in the state’s first high-school work-study program.
In 1965, Jim became Rhode Island’s Director of Special Education, and from 1968 through 1971 he served as the assistant superintendent of the Paul Dever State School in Taunton. This institution housed over 2200 residents in outrageously debilitating conditions. It was here that Jim revolutionized the concept of institutional care and treatment for those with special needs. After a successful, two-year effort to “clean the place up,” Jim undertook the first significant “deinstutionalization” effort anywhere as he sent 800 Dever residents back to the community. The impact of that revolutionary move eventually spread throughout the country.
In 1971, Jim became the first full-time director of RI Arc and a lobbyist for mental health reform. Among his dozens of significant legislative efforts was a law that made Rhode Island the first state to enact a “right to education” statute for ALL children with disabilities. His persistence and creativity in generating appropriations from both the state and federal governments placed Rhode Island first in the country in program excellence and gave it the highest per capita operational and capital expenditures over a span of three decades.
Jim Healey took great risks to call attention to the scandalous conditions at Ladd School; and he was the prime mover in closing it down. On July 26, 1986, Rhode Island became the first state in the country to announce that it would close its mental institutions. On March 23, 1996, Jim experienced the thrill of watching the last five people leave Ladd…. AND THE LAST ONE OUT TURNED OFF THE LIGHTS! Next, he worked diligently to move all 110 residents languishing in the Pediatric Unit at the Zambarano Hospital into the community.
Among the major pieces of state legislation Jim sponsored or authored were those establishing a mandatory Early Intervention Program and a “6 or fewer” zoning law. Jim also initiated the state’s first Respite Care Program; designed and obtained funding for a Home-Based Therapeutic Program for the ever-increasing number of children diagnosed with autism; established a home-based program for children who are medically fragile, and organized most Rhode Island parent advocacy programs. Jim’s work in the area of maternal and child health was a major factor in lowering Rhode Island’s infant mortality national ranking from a shameful #42 to #1 in only six years.
In the tradition of Congressman John Fogarty and in partnership with Senator John Chafee, Jim Healey, now a Cranston resident, has waged a lifetime campaign to free the mentally challenged from the bonds of institutionalization. He has been the maestro of their coming out party, and for this we welcome him into the Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.
– Dr. Patrick T. Conley