Society’s perceptions of the developmentally disabled and the services provided to this population have changed dramatically. James M. Boles is president and chief executive officer of People Inc., the largest nonprofit human services agency in Erie County.

Boles sat down with The Buffalo News’ Brian Meyer at the Museum of disABILITY History on Main Street in Eggertsville.

Here is a summary of an interview that is part of the weekly “In Focus” series. Watch the full interview at

Meyer: We are in a unique building here.

Boles: It’s the only [brick-and-mortar disability history museum] in the world. We also have a great online presence ... In the last few years, we’ve had 9 million hits on our website. There’s a full museum on our website.

Meyer: When people walk through these very insightful exhibits, tell us how they will see these changing perceptions and the changing landscape as it relates to the developmentally disabled.

Boles: Initially, there was nothing for people who were disabled. Many people lived on farms; they worked on the farms and in small businesses.

As governments began to get organized, states developed. We developed poorhouses and almshouses.

So often, if you look at the census data in the poorhouses and the almshouses, you’ll find one-third to 40 percent of the people had disabilities.

Meyer: Of course, that has changed a lot now. We saw back in the early 1970s, the start of deinstitutionalization – the rise of group homes.

That’s probably how most of our [audience] knows People Inc. You run many group homes.

Boles: New York has been very progressive with group homes. They had a law that made it a little easier to get them in. ... In Western New York, we have a lot of agencies that run good group homes, and they’re in just about every neighborhood.

Meyer: What about the push-back from those neighborhoods?

Boles: There’s always some push-back, but it has changed. I think it started to change in the ’80s, and a lot of the change came from the political leaders ... There is occasionally some push-back.

If you go into a certain neighborhood, it can happen. Actually, we’ve been having some push-back putting in some senior programs, because we have programs for seniors.

We had difficulty in a number of local towns putting in senior citizen housing.

Meyer: Let’s quickly talk about some of changes that have been basically forced due to state reforms.

Headlines about a year ago: “State layoffs hit hard on services for disabled.”

Boles: New York’s budget is tight for a variety of reasons, and the federal government’s [budget] is tight ...

The state has been slowly chipping away, and for about the last three years, the agencies that serve the disabled do not have the same resources. They’re trying to do things better.

Meyer: So People’s role has intensified.

Boles: We have had continual growth, more in the last couple of years from picking up programs from agencies that can’t run them anymore.