0n June 15th, citizens of Willmar honored three of its citizens buried anonymously at the regional treatment center by placing proper grave markers, with full names and dates of birth and death on their burial sites.
As part of a project called “Remembering with Dignity,” activists with developmental and other disabilities in Minnesota are seeking to acknowledge the “lives of our fellow citizens who were abandoned in institutions and buried with only a number.”
As Minnesota’s regional treatment centers close their doors, this simple act of dignity serves as a poignant reminder of a difficult time in our history.
When our state began building institutions for people with significant learning disabilities more than 130 years ago, our intentions were to provide needed training and education not available in the community.
Although the early training schools were successful in meeting this need, increasing demand for services quickly led to larger facilities, and the commitment to education was abandoned in favor of custodial care.
“Students” of progressive training schools became “inmates” of large institutions.
Small “classrooms” were replaced by crowded “wards,” some with as many as one hundred residents to one staff person.
Some people have argued that we should not attempt to judge past treatment of people w disabilities by present-day standards.
This thinking says, in effect, that it was reasonable to sterilize more than 2,000 Minnesotans with disabilities against their will; that it was appropriate to use aversive drug therapies, physical restraints, electric shock treatments, even frontal lobotomies, to control behaviors.
This view of history suggests that the abuse suffered by people with disabilities was simply the result of social forces of the time, with professionals responding in the best ways they knew how. But we knew this was wrong at the time, and we continued anyway.
Arguing, as many have, that “the past is past” only serves to remove us from any responsibility for past transgressions.
As an acknowledgment of past abuse and neglect, and to ensure this kind of “treatment” does not happen again, members of Remembering with Dignity also are seeking a formal apology from the State.
As we have discovered, many elected officials do not like to admit to past wrongs, and it is unlikely an apology will come soon.
But legislators have awarded more than $200,000 to help pay for proper grave markers, admitting in some sense that people who lived in our institutions were wronged and should be remembered with this one final act of dignity.
Over the long and misguided history of institutionalizing people with disabilities, it has only been during the past 25 years that we have witnessed people speaking up for themselves, voicing their individual concerns about how they have been treated, and going further to organize and speak on behalf of all people with disabilities.
As more of us, with and without disabilities, become involved in this project we have a greater chance of ensuring that history will not repeat