A Personal Statement About Burton Blatt
"A life devoid of value is no life at all!"
Funny how you meet someone who changes your life. I was a "life-experienced," young student at Boston University (BU), studying social psychology and special education after a rather traumatic and injury- shortened Vietnam military venture. Many of us, with that sort of a "less-than-respected resume at the time" struggled in search of a purpose for life, easily influenced by anyone who offered a direction, while we sorted things out. Some of us were luckier than others.
Dr. Burton Blatt had already left his impact on BU, as a professor at the School of Education and the Chair of the Special Education Department. He had gone on to Syracuse University as professor of education and, in 1971, founded the Center on Human Policy along with Doug Biklen, Robert Bogdan and others. The Center has become among the nation's most respected policy, research and advocacy organizations, due in part to Burt's significant contributions and influence. In 1976, Burt was named the Dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University, a title he held with great distinction until his untimely death at 57 years of age in 1985.
Burt's epic exposé Christmas in Purgatory (1966) was a resource utilized for one of my classes at BU. That text, combined with stark black and white photos, revealed blatant and deliberate dehumanization of people who had no one to defend them; no one who was concerned about either their lives or what happened to them. He wrote about, talked about and illustrated how society just didn't seem to care. Somehow Burt Blatt was trying to infuse value into these lives and he was someone I needed to find.
However gullible, stupid, wise or innocent I might have been as a "life-experienced" student, I called Burt Blatt at Syracuse, soliciting an opportunity to discuss the importance of his experience on this book and several other required writings on my quest for knowledge. I was planning my biennial cross country trip from Boston home to Wisconsin anyway, so why not? Dr. Blatt casually replied, "Of course, stop by my office on your way through."
Amazingly, Dr. Blatt was incredibly gracious, spending time in his office like I was supposed to be there, as a student seeks information from his mentor. He provided me with definitions, purpose and focus by gently persuading me toward an understanding of adversity for those who apparently had no voice. He shared his knowledge and experience of the degrading conditions of life in institutions and how difficult it must have been for those parents who had to make the heart wrenching decision of institutionalization. He helped me place a great deal of life into perspective, at a time I needed it most.
At the time I had no idea either how rude I was to ask or how gracious he was to accept, such an opportunity from someone he barely met. But that meeting and several others profoundly affected my direction of study and career choices, simply because of who he was.
Throughout the coming years, Burt opened his office and availability via phone calls to me on several other occasions. He offered advice while I was working as a clinician in Vermont, developing critical community resources while providing escape routes from Brandon Training School. While attending graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, he continued to provide his gracious guidance as often as I asked for it. And when I returned to Vermont, working as a behavioral clinician, Burt encouraged me to participate professionally in the American Association on Mental Deficiency (AAMD, now AAIDD).
At my first professional convention of AAMD in 1975 in New Orleans, I first heard Dr. Blatt as the organization's incoming President. He sounded like he was talking to me, as if we were sitting in his office. I was unbelievably impressed as he took on the organization, advocating for this institutionally biased organization to realize the unjust treatment taking place within the very facilities they celebrated!
He encouraged several of us to get involved to change AAMD from an institutional-based superintendent's organization to a policy setting, purpose driven organization, advocating for systemic change toward the expansion and availability of a community based service system. He later helped us create the "Community Living Subdivision" within AAMD by drawing huge crowds of young, impressionable professionals who were truly committed toward change.
Burt Blatt was the consummate advocate not only for citizens with developmental disabilities who he declared had no voice, but for many others who didn't seem to have anyone who cared for or about them. In of his epic speeches, he talked about the lives of others for whom no one seemed to care: "A life devoid of value is no life at all!" He went on in great lengths to describe how if we, as a society and especially those gathered to advocate for change, didn't care about a life wasted, whether in the back wards of institutions, an unborn child or a senior citizen put in a nursing home, who would?
He brought shock to the audience by declaring "Then Hitler was right! He thought the same thing, that Jewish people were bad. That they didn't deserve to live! That eliminating them was justified!" Burt furthermore described that whenever a society decides, for whatever reason that others don't deserve to be among us, we are all suspect! "Who is next? Us overweight professors? Those that are bald? Those who gather at conferences like AAMD?" The point was, whoever decides that a life is devoid of value, controls the future of someone else!
Burt Blatt was not only an advocate for the elimination of institutions for citizens with disabilities, but for the expansion of needed community living programs and supports. His presentations included a wide variety of a humorous often seemingly irrelevant newspaper clips, magazine articles and various text readings presented in a fashion that brought poignant issues to the surface with a unique style of grace and presence. Burt, with a definition provided by a dear friend Bob Perske, was truly "unique and unrepeatable".
Burton Blatt was a gifted clinician, marvelous orator, incredible teacher and, to many, a wonderful mentor. His guidance influenced a field at the very time it needed influence. His advocacy led the charge to self-advocacy. And his many legacy writings should serve to influence us all for many centuries to come. He brought meaning to the life and purpose of many, including those whose life he affected, who never had a chance to meet him.
This video is one of several talks provided by Burton Blatt in 1984, sharing his gifted talents to advocate for change. Burt spearheaded our efforts to bring the country's oldest professional organization (AAIDD) to move from an institutional biased fraternity of institutional superintendents toward an advocacy organization accepting the need to expand community supports for citizens with disabilities. His gift will forever be available through the wonderful work of the Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities.
Audio: 1984 Speech National AAMD