Archives for October 2013

Embracing people with disabilities

I marveled last week at the images of Pope Francis physically embracing people with disabilities. In this first photograph, he stopped his Popemobile to give a blessing to a man who was being carried by another. These images prompted me to look for other pictures of famous and powerful people in similar situations.

Pope Francis blesses man with a disability in St. Peter's Square.

Pope Francis blesses man with a disability in St. Peter’s Square.
www.patheos.com

Pope Francis stopped to hug an American boy who has cerebral palsy.

Pope Francis stopped to hug an American boy who has cerebral palsy. Latino.foxnews.com

Pope Francis has consistently lived up to the legacy of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who lived a live of poverty, humility and compassion. I am hopeful that images like these, which went viral on the Internet and were shown widely on television, will go a long way to softening public attitudes toward those with disabilities.

This young boy, Dominic Gondreau, was seated near the front in St. Peter’s Square on Easter Sunday. There were perhaps a quarter million people in the square, but Pope Francis noticed Dominic. His father, Paul Gondreau, later talked about what this encounter meant to him and his family.

Humanitarian and theologian Jean Vanier fully embraces people with intellectual disabilities by living in community with them.

Humanitarian and theologian Jean Vanier fully embraces people with intellectual disabilities by living in community with them.

Jean Vanier left a promising naval career and life in academia in the 1960s to set up a L’Arche community in Trosly-Breuil, France. After becoming aware of the plight of thousands of people with developmental disabilities living in institutions, he invited two men to live with him in the first L’Arche house. He has devoted his life to writing and lecturing on embracing people with disabilities. He still lives in the original L’Arche community.

President Obama embraces Rosa Marcellino of Maryland after he signed Rosas Law.

President Obama embraces Rosa Marcellino of Maryland after he signed Rosa’s Law.

President Obama signed Rosas Law in 2007, requiring that all government documents eliminate any reference to mental retardation and instead use the term intellectual disability. The law was named for Rosa Marcellino, a 9-year-old girl with Down Syndrome who lives in Maryland. Rosa’s family fought to get the law passed. Her brother, Nick, said, “What you call people is how you treat them. If we change the words, maybe it will be the start of a new attitude toward people with disabilities.”

The not so beautiful story of disability history

Rachel Simon speaking at the PACSTX conference in San Marcos, Texas.

Rachel Simon speaking at the PACSTX conference in San Marcos, Texas.

My friend and colleague Rachel Simon was in Central Texas last week to speak before the Providers Alliance for Community Services of Texas, a group that supports nonprofits and companies that serve people with intellectual disabilities.

As usual, Rachel was superb in front of the audience. She is a gifted speaker – one who knows how to tell good stories and elicit strong emotion.  I admire her tremendously.

Most of Rachel’s talk was about her latest book, The Story of Beautiful Girl, a powerful novel about a young man and woman who escape from an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. I highly recommend it, not only for the great story it tells, but also because it draws attention to the terrible conditions that once existed in these institutions.

She also talked about the history of institutional care, which dates back to 1848, when the first facility to house people with intellectual disabilities opened in Boston, Massachusetts. Unbelievably, it was called the Massachusetts School for Idiot Children.

A history that bears repeating

Over the remainder of the 19th century, some 35 such state schools sprang up across the country. Institutionalization really took off in the early 1900s, when the eugenics movement swept the United States and there was a big push to segregate and isolate people who were considered “defective.”

By 1969, there were almost 300 institutions in the United States housing 190,000 people. The institutional movement ground to a halt in the 1970s when the news media began exposing the overcrowding, filth and abuse that occurred in many facilities.

The most notorious media exposé was produced by WABC-TV reporter Geraldo Rivera at Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, New York.  He managed to get inside with a video camera and shoot footage of the deplorable conditions.

Civil rights for those with disabilities

The civil rights movement for people with disabilities took off in the 1970s and by 1980, the first institutions began closing. Today, there are 160 institutions nationwide with a dozen states having closed all facilities. (Willowbrook closed in 1987.)

In Texas, two state schools were closed in the 1990s but 13 remain open.  My Uncle Melrose lived in one of those institutions and like thousands of others, he was able to move to a group home setting.

I was glad that Rachel reminded us about the unhappy history of the institutional movement. It’s good to remember history, unpleasant as it may have been.

I do believe the day is coming when all people with disabilities will live in non-institutional settings and have the chance to be as independent and productive as possible. It can’t come soon enough.