AHRC New York City joined allies in the long fight for disability justice at the official opening of the Willowbrook Mile at the College of Staten Island. The Mile is a memorial walking trail in honor of those who suffered at the infamous namesake state institution until its closing on September 17, 1987–exactly 35 years to the day of the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

AHRC NYC has partnered with CSI for many years, with the university being the inaugural home of the Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program. The program allows students with disabilities to receive a four-year college experience at a premier institution whose grounds once symbolized the nadir of disability rights.

The Willowbrook Mile leads us on a journey of the lived experiences of infants, children, and adults with disabilities at the now-shuttered infamous institution on Staten Island,” said Marco Damiani, CEO of AHRC NYC. “The journey is often difficult and troubling.  But it is also a story of the power of seeing what is wrong, the wherewithal and tenacity to make it right, and the resilience of the human condition. AHRC NYC is proud to have played a significant positive role in that journey.”

Former Residents See the Grounds

Michael Weinberg, AHRC NYC’s Vice President for Residential Services and a longtime Staten Island resident, said, “The Mile recognizes the importance of Willowbrook as the beginning of the rights movement for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. From here, supports and services for people with I/DD were radically transformed.”

Eric Goldberg, Geraldo Rivera, and others cut the Willowbrook Mile ribbon.

Eric Goldberg, Geraldo Rivera, and others cut the ribbon to commemorate the Willowbrook Mile.

The mile consists of 12 stations, each documenting the history of the site and providing context for the grounds. AHRC NYC has a bench at station 5, From Isolation to Inclusion, honoring the former residents of Willowbrook who now live safely in their own communities. The bench inscription reads “AHRC NYC, Founded 1949. Disability Rights are Human Rights.”

The event was attended by two Willowbrook class members who now live at AHRC NYC’s Kensington residence, not far in distance from their former home but miles away in quality of life and dignity. Many other former residents were invited but chose not to attend.

Michael added “While we were proud to be a part of today’s celebration, it was also an honor to be present with several people from our own residential department, who survived their Willowbrook experience. It was a day to reflect on how much has changed, how much still needs to change, and how the work we do is a part of this.”

Looking to the Future of Disability Rights

In 1971, Jane Kurtin of the Staten Island Advance published the first exposé of Willowbrook’s deplorable conditions. The following year, Geraldo Rivera reported on Willowbrook for national outlets, setting in motion the events that ultimately led to the institution’s closing and fairer opportunities for people with developmental disabilities.

Geraldo Rivera speaks with Bernard Carabello, Willie Mae Goodman, and Diane Buglioli.

Bernard Carabello, Willie Mae Goodman, and Diane Buglioli listen as Geraldo Rivera speaks about the road to the Willowbrook Mile.

The world has changed for the developmentally disabled,” Rivera said. “They have to come out of the shadows. Their lives, their rights, their futures are now part of all of our lives.”

Rivera attended the Mile’s opening ceremony, along with many other state and city officials instrumental to New York State’s future as a leader in disability services, including Assemblyman Michael Cusick, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, Borough President Vito Fossella, State Sen. Diane Savino, Assemblyman Mike Reilly, and Assemblyman Mike Tannousis. Kerry Neifeld, Commissioner of OPWDD, was also in attendance.

From AHRC NYC, attendees included Marco Damiani, CEO; Raymond Ferrigno, President of the Board of Directors; and Laura Kennedy, Board Member and President-Elect of the Arc of the United States. Laura, whose daughter Julia lives in an AHRC NYC residence on Staten Island, reflected on the decades of past advocacy and the path ahead.

Laura Kennedy speaks at the ceremony following years of advocacy to open the Mile.

Laura Kennedy speaks at the ceremony, following years of advocacy to open the Willowbrook Mile.

The ribbon cutting today for the Willowbrook Mile Legacy is not the end of our journey — we have thousands more miles ahead of us,” she said. “Our advocacy must continue today, tomorrow, and all our tomorrows.”