Saturday, April 28, 2007

Close 'em. Once and For All!

Note: This was originally published in my hometown newspaper. But, I can't remember when. (CRS)

In 1865 the Illinois General Assembly gave an order to the Illinois Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. They were to establish an "Experimental School for the Instruction and Training of Idiots and Feeble-Minded Children". First located in Jacksonville, it was eventually moved to Lincoln and called the "Institution for the Education of Feeble-Minded Children."

This is how Lincoln Developmental Center began. It was to provide care, support, training, and education for "mentally deficient children". It had a hospital and shops where the "inmates", as they were called, manufactured brushes, mattresses, and shoes. Inmates also worked on a nearby farm owned and operated by the institution, not unlike the conditions at Big Muddy or other prisons. But, unlike the inmates in the penal system, they were not eligible for parole.

From such roots, is it any wonder that there were so many instances of mistreatment, negligence and abuse? We, as a society, believed that if we gave the inmates, jobs, shops, a hospital, and even a farm, they could have their own little society, just like, but away from "normal" people.

The cost of that segregation is evident. When people are forced into these institutions it creates the impression that they are incapable of performing even the most menial tasks. For that reason, most people with disabilities live in poverty, due to, in large measure, a staggering unemployment rate of over seventy percent. More than seventy percent of working-age, non-institutionalized people with disabilities, who say they want to work, are unemployed. Imagine assigning that figure to any other demographic group… would it be tolerated as it is for people with disabilities?

The fact is that what people with disabilities can do is unlimited. All they need to succeed is the right tools and support. Imagine trying to change a flat tire without any tools. Without a jack and tire iron and wrench it cannot be done. Employers believe that making an accommodation for someone with a disability is too expensive. They think that workman’s compensation and insurance rates will skyrocket. This is not true. Despite study after study that finds that show this, the old stereotype persists and rules people’s consciousness. Employing someone with a disability is no more risky or expensive than employing some one who is not.

The idea that we need LDC so people with disabilities can have somewhere to live is preposterous. Our housing needs are the same as anyone else’s. But then there’s the question of services and support. Why cannot these services be delivered in a neighborhood rather than an institution? They can and it’s even cheaper!

Until the passage of civil rights legislation in the ‘70s, people with disabilities had no voice. We were warehoused, and hidden away with no recourse. Illinois’ plan to re-open LDC is to return to those days of apartheid.

But, throughout history we've learned that apartheid does not work. It never has and it never will. As Americans we have made a commitment to diverse communities and building a multi-cultural society. Unfortunately, our institutions lag behind our ideals. A community cannot have true liberty if part of their people are segregated, warehoused and hidden away.

"There can be no justice until those who are uninjured by crime become as indignant as those who are," declared an ancient philosopher. Since the end of the Civil War we declared that all are equal under the law. It is time to include people with disabilities. It is time for all to become as indignant as those who cry for a place in our society. It is time to push the old, ill-fitting institutions.

I have an idea. Let's do open LDC. Only not as an institution to hide away people, but as a museum showing how far we have come since the days when we created institutions to keep people with disabilities out of sight, out of mind. We can honor the victims of this American Apartheid, and let it serve as a reminder that to segregate of a segment of society can only lead to the dehumanization of both the oppressed and the oppressor.

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