I’m a relic of sorts. A throwback to the time when words like retarded and disabled were used professionally. In the late 1960’s I was a direct care giver for seriously emotionally disturbed children. Later, I oversaw professional services in a state hospital unit for the mentally retarded. In the late 1970’s I directed two facilities for severely mentally and physically handicapped children. The labels I used above were accepted at the time. I was a specialist in programs where the people I was responsible for were excluded –isolated from society. Like I said, I’m a relic.
My peers and I knew isolation and exclusion were the wrong approach. We worked hard to change the status quo. We tried to move people from living in institutions to residing in the community. That was called it de-institutionalization. Regardless of where an impaired person lived, we fought to upgrade their living conditions. We called that normalization. In school settings, we pushed and pleaded and forced our children into traditional classroom. That was mainstreaming.
The same work continues today only it’s called inclusion, as in giving impaired people the same rights, opportunities, and choices as any other person. As I read about and study the current state of affairs for emotionally, intellectually, or physically impaired people I am thrilled with some of what I see. It seems like everything has changed for the better. Yet after the thrill wears off, I realize impaired people still live in institutions. This time in small group homes, or individual residences hidden away in towns and cities across America. I believe people are still isolated, some excluded from work or educational opportunities. It makes me realize nothing has changed.
Today, my job is to write about the old days, when society believed some people were deviant and genetically passed along undesirable traits. They feared for a country over-run with idiots, morons, imbeciles and cripples. Their fears were unfounded of course. Yet before their mantra of exclusion had run its course, they damaged hundreds of thousands of Americans. I want current day readers to get a sense of how harsh and demeaning it was to live in an institution with its lack of care and stark horror. Why? To remind us all to push forward, expand the boundaries of civil rights. It is my opinion that accepting the status quo is tantamount to sliding back to the bad old days of exclusion and isolation.
I am currently writing a book called Girl On the Edge. The book will explain the forces that led to people being isolated in institutions. The heroine, Anna Olson, is a pretty young lady -isolated and excluded, eventually institutionalized. I’ve already completed one book, an historical novel, Isolated in America, (any publishers out there?) which describes how bad life was in the large institutions of the past. Here, we follow Anna as she fights to survive in one of the largest institutions in America. Hopefully, these two books will help people understand why we can’t give up the progress we’ve made. We have to push forward for more inclusion, less isolation.
Would it be wise to forget about the holocaust? No one would say yes. The old expression is still true, if we don’t know our past, we are bound to repeat it. Hence I think the little phrase “lest we forget” is applicable when it comes to how we treat our fellow human being who just happens to have a limitation or two. We all need to keep working -don’t go back!