Burton Blatt: Leader, Teacher, Friend
Hank Bersani, Professor of Special Education, Western Oregon University
It is now over a quarter of a century since Burton Blatt died on January 20, 1985. A long-established professional at that point, he became known to many in 1966 with his self-published photo essay Christmas in Purgatory (since published by the Human Policy Press in 1976). His words, and the grainy photojournalistic images captured by Fred Kaplan exposed the American public to the horrors of institutions for the first time. The book leaves an indelible mark on all who read it – even today.
Blatt, in his short 57 years was an international leader, an exquisite teacher, and a friend to many – even if they met him only briefly. He left behind volumes of writing from research to poetry, scores of doctoral students, thousands of former students and thousands more who heard him speak with unrivaled eloquence about what he called "man's inhumanity to man."
At Syracuse University his official roles were professor, chair of the special education department, and Dean of the School of Education. In reality he was the in-house philosopher, content to be the iconoclast, even the pariah. His writing and his teaching became more poetic, and more urgent towards the end. He did train us to be special educators, scholars, and researchers, but in reality he taught us to be humanitarians, people of good conscience. He urged us to change ourselves before we tried to change the world.
Few people have changed the field of special education the way he did in so few years. Ideas that are today non-controversial – closing institutions, changing the word "retarded" and seeing the life of every individual as important – were all radical ideas when he taught them Now, they have become self-evident, core to what we do and teach.
The preface to Christmas in Purgatory quotes Albert Camus, "Perhaps we cannot stop the world from being one in which children are tortured, but we can reduce the number of children tortured." Blatt did exactly that. By putting this speech online, the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities has extended his influence to a new generation. The world is a better place for his efforts, and few of us can truly claim that.
Audio: 1984 Speech National AAMD
Listen (with Transcript)