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Dr. Burton Blatt, Syracuse University
March 1984 Speech at Holiday Inn Airport, Pittsburgh, PA

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So, you ask, what are we doing? What have we become? It doesn't stop. What are the arguments for denying life supports for severely mentally retarded people? That there are infants so mentally retarded that they can't benefit from any sort of educational programming. They are custodial vegetables.

This was the argument that was advanced by a group of distinguished child developmentalists to Judge Johnson in the Pablo case several years ago. These people, all experts in child development and mental retardation, said to this federal judge, who was seeking to reform a state institution for the mentally retarded or close it down.

These experts said to him, "Parents of severely retarded children and by implication you too, Judge Johnson, are being sold a cruel, cruel hoax. You're being told that severely retarded people can live in the community, in the… these group homes," the kinds that some of you manage, "that severely retarded people can live in a noncustodial environment, and that's simply not the case. What most severely retarded people need are clean living environments, decent, kindly custodial care. These individuals will never learn anything. And to be promised that even the possibility that there was some sort of training program from Marc Gold or Happ or you name it that could help such a person live in a manner which even resembles ordinary life is just the cruelest sort of hoax."

Let's look at that argument. What surprised me most about that proposition is that these otherwise very bright psychologists, and they are, either never knew or had completely forgotten the history of mental institutionalization. Anyone who knows anything about the history of mental institutionalization knows, knows as sure as you're sitting and breathing there, that it has been since the beginning of mental institutionalization to this day impossible to run for other than the briefest period of time decent, clean, humane, even custodial institutions. They're impossible to run. I mean even if you wanted to do it, you can't.

How come? How come? I mean your parents ran decent, clean, humane homes. I assume at least most of your parents did; you look like a fairly normal lot. How come you can't run humane, decent custodial institutions? Who's going to work there? People who work in institutions usually don't stay very long, and those who stay a long time usually get very depressed. The salaries are low. The perks aren't. The prestige isn't.

You don't stay. You stay for one of two reasons. Either you're a saint or there's something the matter with you. So you have a few saints there and you have a few people where there's something the matter with them, and you have a lot of other people who come and go.

There's a tremendous turnover—you know that. I'm not telling you anything you don't know. I mean, who do you have working in an institution? You have a few saints, people much better than us—much better than me, I don't want to talk about you—a few saints.

You have a few deviant people, vicious, deviant, sadistic, I mean, you know, whatever, there's something the matter with them, and you have a lot of people coming and going, leaving. Some alcoholics, some drug addicts, and some saints.

Why would anybody want to work there? I'm not talking big jobs, I'm not talking superintendents' jobs and principals and directors, you know, the coordinators. I'm talking about people who actually have to work, change the diapers, you know, go into the day rooms.

Oh, sure, the big shots, they've got good jobs. They're there a long time, they have very good jobs. I mean, their jobs are almost as good as professors. They've got good jobs.

Also, those places are closed places. You can't get in easily. You can't get out easily. You can't look around from the outside easily.

I mean you go to one of your good old everyday institutions in Pennsylvania. I don't know them as well as I used to, I mean, I don't even know whether they're the same names, but you know around here you've got Polk State School, and I used to go to Selinsgrove now and then. I mean, White Haven, I used to go around to these places. Laurelton.

There used to be a school for defective delinquents, women of childbearing age. That was who it was for; defective delinquents of childbearing age. That was the classic client they took.

I'm sure some it is changed, a lot of it. But you go to your good old every day institution in Pennsylvania, you get out a camera, you want to take some pictures. You go to the superintendent's and say, "I'd like to go into your dormitories, into your… I'd like to go where the severely retarded live and take some pictures." Chances are you're not going to get very far.

How come? I mean, really, how come? Anybody bring a camera today? Anybody? Nobody wanted to take my picture. Oh, he's got a TV. He's taking my picture. Every minute of it, even with my silly stories.

But if somebody brought a camera and they want to take a picture or go out in the lobby to take it, nobody's going to stop them, right? You can go all over this motel. I mean you can't go to somebody's private room, but you can go all over the motel, in here, you want to take pictures, take pictures, come on my campus, take pictures. Walk along the street, walk on the street you start taking somebody's picture, usually they stop and smile, don't they? They wave, huh?

You can stop somebody and say, "You mind if I take it?" "No not at all." You get a little crowd together, you take their picture, they all smile. How come you can do that anywhere but in an institution for the retarded? Can't do it in an institution for the retarded. They're closed. And anything that's closed is going to get dirty, there's going to be scandal. It's gotta happen.

Where are there always scandals? Prisons, army camps, institutions, that's where the scandals are. You can't have a scandal on the university campus. Not a real one. I mean, not one that people really would be horrified to hear about. You have a few things that make people chuckle, but not things that would horrify people.

What is that professors are more moral than institutional workers? Anybody that's been to university knows, you know different. You know that's not true. Professors and students, they have higher morals than people who work in institutions or institutionalized retarded people? Not at all. I mean, we've been to university, you've been to college, you know that. That's not true.

How come there are no great scandals in the university? Why don't you read that university professors are beating students and locking 'em up? Huh? Drugging them. Why, why not? Because the places are open.

I mean, if you have a lunatic in the university doing terrible things, everybody's going to know it right away and they're going to root that person out and do something with him or her. In an institution, things could go on for year after year after year, and nobody will know it. They're closed, and that's where things do go on in closed places.

We've never had a period in American history where institutions for the retarded or the mentally ill were immune from scandal. They've always been rift with corruption with dirt, filth and abuse. They're a little cleaner now, we've had reforms of 20 and 25 years and new laws and advocacy councils and oversight committees. I mean everything under the sun, and I could take you to places in the United States today, right out of Christmas in Purgatory, right today, and you know it. You know it.

And all you gotta do is let your guard down for a few weeks. It's just like when you get you get that lawn going beautiful, you know, it just looks gorgeous, but you, the family goes away for vacation for two or three week and the neighbor forgot to water the lawn or fertilize it or whatever. You come back, it's all weedy again. You don't take care of your lawn, all the weeds come.

That's the way institutions are. They are not naturally healthy. Yeah, you can keep them looking okay for a little while, but they're no damn good. Anything segregated is bad. And it's hard to have something horrible or terrible if it's integrated. It's hard.

It's the magic of normalization, that's the magic of integration. What, is it that you people are so much smarter than those who run the institutions and work in them, or so much nicer or better? Well, you probably are, but we have a very classy crowd here today. But people who work in group homes; they're not any different than those who work in the institution as people.

People are people. People are people. The difference is that where you work, you work in an ordinary neighborhood. And if you're up to mischief in your group home, if the postman doesn't see it, or the guy who delivers milk or the next door neighbor, somebody's going to find out about it, and they're going to put a stop to it.

Audio: 1984 Speech National AAMD
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