Dignity at the Capitol

Demonstrators Demand Freedom at April 26th Rally A small but spirited crowd of people wearing bright yellow ribbons gathered at […]

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Demonstrators Demand Freedom at April 26th Rally

A small but spirited crowd of people wearing bright yellow ribbons gathered at the Minnesota State Capitol on Wednesday, April 26th, to demand greater dignity and freedom for people with disabilities. “We are asking that all people with disabilities, like all minorities, have freedom and not be forced to live in institutions,” said demonstrator Richard Mathison.

April 26th was a day of coordinated demonstrations held around the country to press for the integration into the community of the more than 50,000 people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities still living in large institutions. Activists rallied around the following statement articulated by the national advocacy group Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE):

“We believe that all institutions, both private and public, should be closed. All people, regardless of the severity of their disabilities, should live in the community with the support they need.”

Minnesota activists have been demanding for years that the State issue a formal apology for the long history of dehumanization suffered by people with developmental disabilities in our state institutions over the decades. Noting that the numbers of Minnesotans with developmental disabilities living in large institutions has been reduced by over 90 percent over the past twenty years, demonstrators at the Capitol put particular emphasis on this demand.

In the past, people with disabilities were often sent to institutions because their families believed there was something “wrong” with them, activist Rick Cardenas said. “Stemming from the ‘moral model’ of disability, in which people saw disability as a punishment, there used to be an extreme stigma attached to disability that caused families to want to deny the presence of disability in the family,” he added. The wide acceptance of this model on the part of many Minnesotans has contributed to untold numbers of people with disabilities being sent away and warehoused in large institutions around the state.

The lack of respect accorded to the people sent away to these institutions is revealed-and symbolized-by the fact that it was the policy of the state for many years to bury deceased residents of state institutions in graves marked by nothing more than a number. Over 10,000 people have been buried in such anonymous graves in institutional graveyards around the state of Minnesota. (Families and loved ones have taken it upon themselves to place informal markers at some of the graves, but the majority remain numbered or completely unmarked.)

Changing the attitudes of the temporarily able-bodied majority, and reducing the stigma attached to disability, were both parts of the motivation for the April 26th rally. “I think it kind of slaps people in the face to find that people had no names, that they were considered just numbers,” said Cardenas.

Remembering With Dignity

The rally was organized by local advocacy group Advocating Change Together (ACT), which has taken leadership in the Minnesota campaign called “Remembering With Dignity.” The rally was a natural fit with the Remembering With Dignity project, since one of the four primary goals of that campaign is the empowerment of people with disabilities to organize around the issue of community living versus living in institutions.

The other primary goals of Remembering With Dignity (RWD) are:

* To place names on the unmarked graves in institution cemeteries in Minnesota mentioned above;

* To collect oral histories and support individuals in telling their stories of living in institutions;

* To increase public awareness about the history and experiences of people who have lived and died in Minnesota’s state institutions;

Started in 1994, RWD succeeded after three years in getting a small legislative appropriation to begin the project of marking the graves at Minnesota’s institutions. Enough money has been allocated to mark 1,000 graves, or roughly 10 percent of the total. To date, 160 graves have been marked in the East graveyard at the state institution grounds in Faribault, with some 200 remaining to be marked there. Next month the first grave will be marked at the institution grounds in Willmar. The cemetery there has a total of 650 graves.

Despite the modest legislative success of the legislative initiative to mark the graves, the State has yet to issue the formal apology demanded by the demonstrators at last month’s rally.

Before gathering to hear a series of speakers on the steps, demonstrators marched in front of the Capitol shouting chants -“What do we want? AN APOLOGY! When do we want it? NOW!”- and sporting a variety of placards and posters with such statements as “We Belong in the Community,” “No More Medical Model,” “Make Your Voice Count,” “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Names Will Really Hurt Me!” and “Don’t Think That We Don’t Think.”

As a large and boisterous group of sixth-graders completed their tour of the Capitol and headed for their school buses, State Representative Betty McCollum (DFL-No. St. Paul) addressed the crowd. Rep. McCollum is the chief author of a resolution in the legislature that would offer a public apology to those who have been involuntarily committed to state institutions. Reminding the assembled demonstrators and media that the concepts of “dignity” and “remembering” were simple, yet profoundly important, Rep. McCollum promised the crowd, “I’m not going to give up.” And after acknowledging that actions speak louder than words, the Representative scanned the crowd and stated, “On behalf of District 55B, this part of Minnesota says, ‘I’m sorry.'”

If you have a story to tell about living in an institution, or if you wish to support the Remembering With Dignity campaign in any way, contact Advocating Change Together (ACT) at 1821 University Avenue, Suite 306-S, St. Paul, MN 55104. Telephone 651-641-0297

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