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The morning after

I do hope Ronald Reagan rests in peace.  And I have great sympathy and admiration for anyone who cares for a loved one with Alzheimer’s, though I also think that George Williams has just about the right take on this.  As we reflect on Reagan’s mortality and ours, I thought it might be useful to suggest that while we in the disability community have good reason to support anyone with a degenerative, debilitating illness (and his or her caregivers), we also have an obligation to all our fellow humans.

With that, I turn you over to James W. Trent, Jr., author of the remarkable book, Inventing the Feeble Mind:  A History of Mental Retardation in the United States:

“In January 1967, Ronald W. Reagan, the newly elected California governor, ordered all state agencies to eliminate 10 percent of what he characterized as ‘fat’ from their budgets.  More specifically, he insisted that state hospitals and institutions for the retarded cut their budgets by $17 million.  This cut, Reagan insisted, would eliminate 3,700 state jobs, close fourteen state-operated outpatient clinics, and begin a process of community-based care, with communities taking greater responsibility for the guardianship of their ‘mental patients.’ Angered by reaction to his proposals, Reagan remarked that state hospitals (and prisons) constituted the ‘biggest hotel chain in the state.’

“Nine months later, Niels Erik Bank-Mikkelsen, the director of the Danish national services for mental retardation, visited the Sonoma State Hospital, a large institution for the retarded in California.  Even before Reagan’s proposed cuts had fully taken effect, Bank-Mikkelsen found conditions in the institution dreadful.  He told a reporter:  ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was worse than any institution I have seen in visits to a dozen foreign countries. . . .  In our country, we would not be allowed to treat cattle like that.’ What he had found were wards of naked adults sleeping on cement floors often in their own excrement or wandering in open dayrooms.  Not uncommon were ‘head bangers.’ Many residents were heavily medicated, existing in a pharmacological daze, a daze exacerbated by the constant shouting and screaming around them.  In its defense, the California commissioner of health and welfare insisted that the state’s treatment of the retarded was ‘the most advanced in the nation.’ Bank-Mikkelsen feared he might be right.” (256)

Now, let’s be clear about one thing:  Reagan did not create those conditions.  In fact, you could argue that under such conditions, policies of “de-institutionalization” and “community-based care” are thoroughly humane-- but then, you’d have to argue that Reagan actually provided the resources for humane de-institutionalization and community-based care, and you shouldn’t try, because you’d hurt yourself with the strain.  No, the only thing Reagan is liable for here is that brutal and quite gratuitous crack likening the state’s prisons and mental hospitals to a “hotel chain"-- and the insistence that the “fat” in the state mental health budget had to go.

That was almost 40 years ago-- but then again, it was a few years after New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s 1965 attack on the inhuman conditions of the Rome and Willowbrook State Schools.  Draw from this what lessons you will, and let’s hope we all learn to do better by those with cognitive and developmental disabilities from here on in.

Posted by on 06/12 at 05:29 AM
  1. As one who has worked with the commuity-based services in Oklahoma since their inception, I can vouch for the fact that they provide far more humane care than the institutions were able to do—provided funding can be arranged.  Yet for the truly seriously mentally ill, alas, they are frequently now warehoused in our jails and penal institutions where professional care is seriously lacking.  We have recently instituted a Mental Health Court which can divert the patient to a proper facility, but I have discovered that the district attorneys can intervene if they, iin their infinite wisdom, feel the crime does not warrant following that course. 

    Posted by  on  06/12  at  03:04 PM
  2. In its defense, the California commissioner of health and welfare insisted that the state’s treatment of the retarded was ‘the most advanced in the nation.
    Fotografo Matrimonio Como

    Posted by  on  05/30  at  09:10 PM

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