This month marks 35 years since the filing of a lawsuit against the infamous Staten Island, NY, institution for people with disabilities, the Willowbrook State School. This action paved the way for ending decades of horrid institutionalized conditions for people with developmental disabilities throughout the United States. How far have we come since then?
In my book, Raymond’s Room: Ending the Segregation of People with Disabilities, I try to show that, today, people with disabilities are still locked away from the rest of society. Perhaps they are not in the squalid conditions of Willowbrook, but they are still living lives apart from us – in institutions, day facilities, residential facilities, and other inventions of the disability industrial complex.
Dr. Mike Wilkins worked as a staff physician at the Willowbrook during the early 1970s. He was fired for his activities to try to make improvements there. The evening of his dismissal, Wilkins used his key to give Geraldo Rivera, a young television reporter, access to the school. Rivera’s film crew documented squalid conditions in understaffed wards. The series, Willowbrook– The Last Disgrace, won a Peabody award. It sparked public outrage that lead to a lawsuit filed on March 17, 1972, and a series of changes that still affect the disability system. From that lawsuit, a consent decree ultimately led to the closing of Willowbook in 1987 and a movement grew to support people with disabilities to live their lives in their communities.
Maybe what we need is another key from an insider. At least, that is what I hope Raymond’s Room can become…