“You can’t treat humans like dogs in a kennel.
There is no place where you can mass produce care, compassion, and concern for people.
It is impossible. It is fundamentally unsound.
The assembly line works for cars – it does not work for people.
People need humanity.”
– Geraldo Rivera, from the 1997 documentary Unforgotten: 25 Years After Willowbrook
On Wednesday, September 14, 2016, guests of various offices of OPWDD, (the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Services Offices, Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities), community members, including representatives from AHRC New York City and other service providing agencies, (Lifestyles for the Disabled the Elizabeth Connelly Resource Center,) joined together to celebrate the groundbreaking of the Willowbrook Mile, in a ceremony held on the campus of the College of Staten Island, (CSI). The event was the result of a common purpose, with a long history.
About the Willowbrook School
Located in Staten Island, NY, the Willowbrook State School was a state-supported institution for children with intellectual disabilities, and was in operation from 1947 to 1987. The American population at large first began to understand the deplorable conditions that could be found within the school in 1965, when Senator Robert Kennedy toured the facility and compared it to a “snake pit” where children lived in filth.
In January, 1972, Geraldo Rivera, who was then a local reporter for WABC-TV News, scaled the fence of the Willowbrook State School, equipped with a film camera and a key to one of the buildings that housed people with disabilities, provided to him by Dr. Michael Wilkins, who had previously worked in the facility, but had been fired after he attempted to speak out about the need to improve the conditions of the facility. The resulting television report, Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace, further exposed the appalling living situation presented within Willowbrook, where disease transmissions were commonplace, (primarily hepatitis A,) and overcrowding had led to outright neglect of the school’s occupants. Film captured during Mr. Rivera’s visit revealed that many of the children were not being properly cared for, in some cases they were not clothed and were unattended, left alone in dark, unsanitary conditions. The report also exposed similar conditions at a facility located just north of New York City called, Letchworth Village Rehabilitation Center.
On March 17, 1972, a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Willowbrook residents by NYSARC, Inc. and several parents of the Willowbrook residents, leading to a series of important changes, including the Willowbrook Consent Decree in 1975, a judicial order signed to improve community placement for the residents of the school.
It took over a decade to place the Willowbrook residents into new living environments. The last residents left the school on September 17, 1987. A portion of the land was acquired by the City of New York in 1989, providing a foundation for the establishment of the College of Staten Island, which was built on the grounds of the former State School, opening its doors in 1993.
The Legacy of Willowbrook at the College of Staten Island
Today, the College of Staten Island serves the largest number of students among the CUNY campuses. The student population includes over 300 students with disabilities, 70 with autism. CSI’s Social Science programs emphasize disabilities studies, and the college has a newly-accredited Social Work program that includes a Masters of Social Work with a focus on care for people with disabilities.
CSI has a rich connection to the legacy of the Willowbrook School, including its partnership with AHRC New York City’s Melissa Riggio Higher Education program, which engages young adults with disabilities in individualized academic, vocational, community and social experiences, preparing them to be competitively employed and to obtain higher earnings. CSI also hosts a lecture series, (funded by Geraldo Rivera,) designed to bring together people from across the nation to examine and shape policy in respect to the care of people with disabilities.
Mis-diagnosed during his early childhood, Bernard Carabello, (who has Cerebral Palsy), lived at Willowbrook from the age of 3 through his 21st birthday, when he was finally allowed to leave the school of his own volition. Bernard was interviewed by Geraldo Rivera as part of the expose, and the two struck up a friendship that remains to this day. After he was released from Willowbrook, Bernard was appointed to a consumer advisory board to monitor conditions at other institutions for people with disabilities. He has continued to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities and is the Founder of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, which provides opportunities for people with developmental disabilities to meet and discuss their concerns with one another, and learn about their rights and opportunities.
Once completed, the Willowbrook Mile will be a fitness and walking trail that connects the CSI properties. Visitors who walk the mile will encounter ten ‘reflection stations’, each station providing historical context of the location, using QR codes that launch audio and video components onto mobile devices after they are scanned. The mile is dedicated to all the lives that were affected by the school; those who lived there, their families, and those who made the tireless and challenging journey to finally close it.
Bernard Carabello and Geraldo Rivera arrived together, shortly before the groundbreaking ceremony for The Willowbrook Mile began. Several speakers were present at the event, each of whom was instrumental in making the Willowbrook Mile a reality.
“On our grounds was the beginning of what I consider to be some of the most important civil rights legislation in the history of the nation, if n