One segment covering discrimination and maltreatment struck me, and how we as a country abused, mistreated and discriminated against individuals with developmental disabilities. We watched a video, “Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace” about a state-ran facility in New York where families, encouraged by their physicians as a solution, took their children when developmental abnormalities became evident. Some families left their children at Willowbrook believing they would receive better care than at home; other parents left them, hidden from view, as if something shameful and atrocious in society. Geraldo Rivera, then a rookie news reporter, broke into one of the wards with the help of a physician recently fired for objecting to facility conditions. He reveals the horrible living conditions of the facility. From 1956-1971, patients were used as medical scientific projects, infected with live hepatitis in order to develop a vaccine. In 1965, Robert Kennedy called Willowbrook a “snake pit.” “The Last Disgrace” also shared family perspectives, and revealing footage of Rivera’s report. The patients existed in an unhealthy living environment, received no education, no socialization, little personal hygiene care, and little to no medical care or support. Rivera’s 1972 exposé facilitated change, leading to an investigation, public outrage, and the shut down of this facility and others like it.
Maltreatment and discrimination towards people with developmental disabilities continues still today. Did you know the earliest advocacy on record for the rights of individuals with developmental disabilities began as early as the late 1800’s? Many laws have been passed over the decades, but the most stringent addressing equal rights and protection against abuse for this vulnerable population were passed and implemented within the last twenty-one years. And, state laws still remain inconsistent and social programs overwhelmed and neglectful. And despite these rigorous efforts, unbelievable stories of maltreatment are heard every day: state-run facilities using leg irons and handcuffs as behavioral modification tools; home-care programs locking their charges in basements or starving to death; a state lawmaker publicly beating and kicking his nineteen-year-old son with autism for “acting out,” and; a child with autism stuffed into a large cloth gym bag at a Kentucky school for punishment.
More disappointing, I learned during my job interview discrimination still exists in Owensboro. Two ladies from our Campus went to have professional manicures after saving their money to enjoy this treat. Their excitement turned into rejection when a local Owensboro nail salon refused them service! Another group of Campus residents went to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, and their Direct Support Providers’ request for use of an electric outlet to grind their meal with a mini-food grinder was met with resistance. Some developmental issues make swallowing food a life-threatening challenge, thus, meals must be processed into more palatable bites. The waiter initially refused the accommodation, but eventually relented to accommodating their need for electricity so the residents could enjoy their Mexican meals.
We have come a long way with respect to ending discrimination against those with disabilities; unfortunately, Owensboro and its citizens have some strides to make in becoming an accepting and inclusive community. Education and understanding are keys to ending discrimination. One visit, one thirty-minute tour of our Campus provides this education, leaving anyone, as it did me, marveling in awe in understanding the challenges and victories of those with developmental disabilities. Ignorance of the unfamiliar and a lack of awareness of one’s own attitudinal behavior is no excuse for such unaccommodating practices. Thankfully, for every negative experience in Owensboro, the ratio favors the positive to restore faith in our small town’s ability to waking up to greater awareness and sensitivity towards those who have special needs.
In the Next Blog Entry: Fear Not Fear - “Ignorance is reflected in our thoughts and prejudiced beliefs; rooted in our own fears and insecurities . . . “
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