The Willowbrook State School is often regarded as the “ground zero” of the disabilities civil rights movement, and it is a significant part of the history of disabilities in the United States. A History and Sociology of the Willowbrook State School documents in great detail what life was like for people who lived and worked at Willowbrook during the period from its founding in 1948 until immediately before Geraldo Rivera’s sensational 1972 television expose about the conditions at Willowbrook.
Authors David Goode, Darryl Hill, Jean Reiss, and William Bronston collaborated on the contents of this book. At least two of these authors had first-hand experience at Willowbrook. The result is a multifaceted sociological and historical analysis of the notoriously infamous Willowbrook, an institution for intellectually and physically disabled children and adults. Historically, Willowbrook was not so different from similar state institutions of its time. The period before the 1970s was a time when disabilities were increasingly “medicalized.” This situation became the impetus for the creation of large-scale institutions like Willowbrook, where the intellectually and physically disabled were often warehoused either because their families did not want to care for them or because they had no other place to go.
The horrific and deplorable particulars of Willowbrook are showcased against the backdrop of the idyllic rural setting of Staten Island, New York, where the community of Willowbrook residents tried to survive in the midst of endemic inhumane and disreputable living conditions. Diseases, physical and emotional neglect and abuse, and even malnutrition were rampant. Within this highly self-contained institutional “island” that was hermetically isolated from the surrounding countryside, most residents were treated without any semblance of humanity and with systematic neglect. Although there were a few exceptions, most of the Willowbrook residents were treated as automatons and as laboratory experiments, with their disabilities manipulated through medications that kept them silenced, calm and under the control of their caregivers.
For their material, the authors conducted interviews with former Willowbrook patients and caregivers, providing as many different perspectives on the history of how the institution functioned as possible.
They maintain that perspectives on Willowbrook were different for different people, depending on the social status of the individuals involved at the institution. Willowbrook illustrated what American sociologist Erving Goffman described as a “total institution,” one completely cut off from the main society and in which a small number of powerful people were in charge of a large number of powerless ones.
Today, the College of Staten Island occupies the buildings and 200-acre grounds of the former Willowbrook State School, where two of the authors teach. Willowbrook was shut down in 1987. While this book provides grim reading, it serves as a necessary reminder of the perils of large-scale institutions and the “medicalization” of disability. Finally, it offers well-documented reasons for avoiding future inhumane facilities for the intellectually and physically disabled.
By Dr. Henrietta Shirk, who teaches in the Technical and Professional Communication Department at Montana Tech of The University of Montana, Butte, Mont.