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

Part One  Part Two  Part Three  Part Four  Part Five  Part Six

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This idea that mentally retarded people are so retarded that they can't benefit from educational programming… they're so retarded they can't benefit.

Well, I know I brought this up last year. I keep bringing it up in my own mind time and time again—then we've forgotten the lesson or never learned the lesson that Itard tried to teach us in that book the Wild Boy of Aveyron, and the lesson that Helen Keller tried to teach us in her autobiography.

Because that's what they were saying to us, not that a deaf-blind person can learn to communicate, or not that a wild boy can learn a few words or learn to put his clothes on. It's that anybody, everybody can learn. That fundamental to being a human being is the capability of learning something.

I know a little later you're going to hear from Mr. Callahan, maybe some of his associates, who have one very profound lesson to teach, and the thing, Try Another Way, I mean, that's interesting. If we can't do it this way, we try another way.

I know there's a lot more to it than that. But there's something even more fundamental than that, that Marc and that whole crowd of such creative and interesting people try to teach us a number of years ago, and that's the lesson, everybody can learn something. That a severely retarded person can learn to put the parts of bicycle together, could learn to do something useful.

A few years ago, I went back to look at those same institutions I had seen 15 years before, which led to that Christmas in Purgatory book. And I wrote another book with a couple of colleagues that was called The Family Papers, and in that book of a few years ago, we discussed this small community called Camphill Village. Camphill is one of a few environments created by a group, another movement, anthropacifists.

It's a religious movement started by a theologian a philosopher by the name of Rudolf Steiner maybe 75 years ago in Europe. And they create these communities; some people say they're quasi institutions. I don't look at those places that way.

There are a number of houses. In those houses live some families with ordinary children and some retarded people live there too. Adults, ordinary, sometimes retarded. And they have a farm, bakery, and shops, other places where they make things and sell things.

Well I go down to the farm one morning. I'm visiting this place, Camphill Village in Copake, New York, and there's a fellow, lots of 'em, and women milking cows by hand, right? One's milking the cow, another one is holding the tail of the cow.

So not only am I inquisitive but about some things, I'm not too smart, and I asked one of the farmers, I said, "Why are you holding the tail?"

I was born in Brooklyn. I didn't know that if somebody doesn't hold the tail, that tail keeps swinging back and hits the milker in the head. He says, "I'm holding the tail so… He explains it to me like I'm a little bit muddled.

I thought about that. I knew that Camphill could afford automatic milkers. They have the most modern sterilization machine you could buy, as modern as any high-class dairy. They could afford automatic milkers. They didn't need anybody to hold the tail. How come they have somebody milking the cow by hand and somebody holding the tail?

They figured out first how to make sure everybody's doing something useful, everybody's working. Everybody is doing something useful. Real work, not make-believe work, not play work, not the work you see in the institution, where when you go into their sheltered workshop.

There's one I was in not too long ago. There you see somebody sitting there putting this over here and then somebody sitting over here takes this and puts this over here. And somebody sitting over here and takes this and puts this over here. And then somebody at the end of the line picks all of those up and brings them over here. And then somebody sits and moves it down the line again.

It's like mannequins in a store window all dressed up looking like real people, looking like they have something to do or somewhere to go, but it's all a façade.

At Camphill, there's real work. There's milking a cow, and holding the tail is very useful when somebody's milking a cow. How much real work do we give people? And how many times in the institution and even in our community training centers have we replaced the individual with a machine while the individual is sitting around with nothing to do?

This is not just a problem in the field of mental retardation. This is a problem for the general society to cope with. America is hell bent on building robots. The Japanese are building robots, you know, for their factories. We're hell bent on building robots and yet we've got millions and millions of people out of work.

It's like the automatic can opener. The automatic can opener makes you useless. There may be a few people in the country who need it, cerebral palsied people, people who don't have any hands, people who are too weak to move the can opener, the 25 cent variety.

But for most of us, the automatic can opener makes us useless. You put the can in, it spins the can around. You don't even have time to run to the john while that can is spinning, otherwise the can will plop and scatter all the contents. And while that can is turning, you are useless.

Well, the institution is a place to make us useless. Its shops usually have work that's make-work, useless work. But the institutional farm, which could have people doing useful work, have been closed because the advocates in the community have sued the state because people were working in the institutional farm and not getting paid for their work, so there was a peonage suit and the advocates won.

So rather than the state now deciding to pay the institutional inmates for the work they're doing, they closed the farm and they brought the farmers back to the institutional cottages where they're sitting in the dayroom with nothing to do.

That what's been happening. And people could do things, people could learn. That was the lesson from The Wild Boy of Aveyron, from the life of Helen Keller, from all these stories that you could tell about the people you work with.

There's the argument that the community isn't prepared to integrate the profoundly retarded. You hear that all the time when you want to start a group home, "Well we're not ready for it, we're not prepared."

That was the same argument that… that was and is used when neighborhoods are integrated along racial lines. "We're not prepared to integrate." Well, if we have to wait for the community to be prepared to integrate, that is, if the will of the majority will rule on questions like this…

What I'm trying to say is if the American people don't want the retarded living in the community and don't want the very old living in the community, and I suspect that's what's going on, that the public does not want the severely retarded, the very old, the sick to live in the community, that the majority of the public does not want that.

If we then say because the majority don't want it, then it's right not to integrate those people, then Hitler was right. Then Hitler was right because he did what the majority wanted.

He had the will of the people. He had the laws behind him. He didn't break any laws. He didn't have any opposition to what he was doing. There weren't any strikes against Adolf Hitler for Dachau and Buchenwald and Treblinka. There was no outcry from the citizens. There was no marches in Berlin against the government. They were with him.

So if the argument is that we cannot deinstitutionalize the retarded and place them in ordinary homes in the community because the citizens don't want it, I say what's our complaint against Adolf Hitler? Now what's the big complaint against Adolf Hitler?

The majority doesn't have to be right. If the majority decides on an immoral conclusion, that even if there's only person left to cry out against that conclusion, that person must cry out against it.

Audio: 1984 Speech National AAMD
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A Personal Statement About Burton Blatt – Bob Laux
Burton Blatt: Leader, Teacher, Friend – Hank Bersani

Burton Blatt Bio

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