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

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I'm not persuaded when the local community says, "We're not ready to have the mentally retarded here." Of course, I'm not persuaded that the State Department of Mental Health always does things so as to educate the local community in the best possible way.

The case that keeps coming back to my mind time and again is what happened downstate in New York a few years ago. The Department of Mental Health decided it was going to deinstitutionalize its mental patients. And so it placed a few mental patients in a couple of little homes it bought in Long Beach, a pretty swanky community in Long Island right on the Atlantic Ocean.

And that seemed to work, so they placed a few more, a few more, and they bought up some motels there and hotels and apartment houses. And before you knew it, the people from Long Beach woke up one day and looked around and they said, "Hey, you know, the neighborhood's changed. And all these people walking the streets here with their flies open and their pants hanging down, and ripped clothes, and… what the hell's going on here?"

Well, the state had dumped hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands, of ex-mental patients in one little neighborhood. And they turned what once was a normal neighborhood into a very large institution called Long Beach.

That's not the way to do it. You gotta be intelligent about this. You want to normalize, you gotta keep the community looking like a community. And if you're going to buy a home for a group home and you want to go into a very nice neighborhood, you don't have a great big yellow bus assigned to the group home "State Department of Mental Health" in the parking lot all the time. And you don't have hordes of people in and out every day, every eight hours, the workers changing their shift.

I mean, if you're going to go into a neighborhood that's a pretty high-tone neighborhood, I mean, you gotta, you gotta make your people and your home fit into that neighborhood. You can't plop in a little institution in a neighborhood.You know, people have to respect the fact that those contiguous neighbors, I mean you do have investments and you do have rights.

I was on a panel a while ago, and the one who made the most sense had the completely the opposite position I did. There was some guy on the panel who was reading a sermon to the people about, uh, "Oh, you got to let us start our group homes in your neighborhood, or you're a bunch of vile bastards," you see, I mean that was his tone.

He represented the state. And then there was this postman. He said, "I saved my nickels and dimes. And my wife was a school teacher, and she used to work Christmastime in a department store to make some extra bucks so we could save up a little money and buy a house out in the country here, out in the suburbs. And we finally bought this little house, we sunk every nickel we could into it so my kids could grow up in a nice neighborhood in the suburbs, you know. I'm a little guy, I'm a postman, and I finally achieved what I wanted, a nice house. I even built a swimming pool in the backyard. And I loved it. And the state bought the house next door. They got a great big yellow bus there in the driveway saying 'So and So Mental Institution' on it, and they stuffed in 14 adults living in that house, and they're all over the place."

He says. "What do you want me to think? And nobody asked me, nobody told me anything, nobody said anything to me about any of this."

He says, "Why shouldn't I be hostile?" I think he's got a right to be a little irked. I think he does.

You want to go in there and start something normalizing for your clients? Keep it normal. One of the… one of the first rules, maybe rule one, of living in a normal neighborhood is you gotta respect your neighbors. You really gotta respect your neighbors, I mean, whether you're running a group home or you're just living there with your own family.

You don't… you don't put your old broken down refrigerators on your front lawn. Or your broken down cars, you don't pile them up in… in your driveway and let them rot there. You know, your neighbor would be upset with that.

We're the same way, you're gonna have a group home in a normal neighborhood; you gotta try to be a good neighbor. Because you're working with the retarded, you know, that doesn't give you any special privilege, you know, to step on other people, to talk down to them.

Well, there is this question: There are lives devoid of all value, they have no value to themselves, to society, and those are the people we're talking about either to extinguish at birth, Baby Jane, Baby Jane Doe, or to put in institutions for life.

That's the big one today. That's the one that is going to take a lot of your thinking. That's the one that you were to have seminars about in every one of your homes, every one of your settings.

Because if you could figure out for yourselves the answer to that question, you could figure out for yourselves the answer to all questions about not only how you deal with the mentally retarded, but how you deal with your own lives. How you understand your own mortality and your own life.

If there is a life devoid of value, then you have to ask the question, how valuable is your own life? If no life is devoid of value, if every life has value, if you believe that not only every day but every hour, not only every hour but every minute and every second of a person's life is sacred, which is, by the way, what you will find in your Testament, Old and New. If you believe that, then you've also said something about your larger beliefs about lots of things.

And then this question, parents, too, have rights. Parents, too, have rights. Of course, parents have rights, but how far do they go? Suppose the parent had a 25-year-old degenerate son who was a murderer, a rapist, a thief, a debaucher, an embezzler, kidnapper, nasty, truant from school, could the parent kill him? No. Baby Jane Doe is being debated, does Baby Jane live or die?

That's a question now. If Baby Jane Doe with the same spina bifida, the same conditions, the same problems, were 15 years old, nobody could ask that question anymore. Then why is it that you can kill a baby, a baby? Do the parents own the baby?

Well, there was just recently a distinguished scientist who said we could deal with this problem of the Baby Jane Does of the world. He said, "Why don't we have a new convention that the fetus remains a fetus until 10 days after birth? And then parents could see what they got. They don't like what they got, boom. They like what they got, they could take it home. But until 10 days after birth, the fetus… It's still a fetus. I mean, it's postpartum, but we still consider it a fetus."

I mean, you know, we're having all of these arguments on the abortion issue, can you have an abortion before the first trimester, after the first trimester. I mean, when is… when is, as the church would ask the question, when is that fetus touched by the hand of God? Or when is that fetus invested with a soul, huh?

Well, the scientist… a Nobel Laureate, by the way, in all seriousness asks why not wait until the baby is 10 days old? And the parent decided, "I want this one. This one looks all right. I mean, it's the right sex. I like the nose, five fingers on each hand, I'll take it." Or not. You stunned? Well, what do we do with Baby Jane Doe? That's what we're doing.

Now, there are other ways of dealing with that question. The state could say, "Look, you don't want the baby? You don't want the baby. All right, when you're ready, Mom, after you give birth, when you're ready, leave the hospital. It's always a possibility. It's no longer your responsibility."

I mean, why do we insist that the parent make a choice? That the parent make a decision? Or the court?

We had a case in Syracuse a few weeks ago, it hit all the national papers. This old man decided he didn't want to eat anymore. He was 85 years old, and he didn't want to eat anymore. He was in a convalescent home in Syracuse—right across from my university, right across the street from my own office—Plaza Nursing Home.

He didn't want to eat anymore. His wife had died, he was sick, and he stopped eating. Well, uh, the nursing home finally went to court to get the judge to make a decision after he had stopped eating for 40 days. The nursing home got a little nervous because this was a very prominent, had once been a very prominent man.

And the judge said, "If he doesn't want to eat, he doesn't have to eat." What the hell does the judge know about this? He's not a doctor, he's not a nutritionist, he's not a theologian. What does the judge know? The judge doesn't know a God damn thing about this. But the nursing home didn't want to be sitting there making the decision.

Of course, that's a different situation than Baby Jane Doe. This is a man who made a decision about himself. And you may want to argue with him about it. You may have wanted to argue with him. You can't anymore, he's gone now. He left this vale of tears.

But with the Baby Jane Does of the world, the baby isn't making the decision, the parents are. Or if you listen to Raymond Duff, the Yale University Professor of Pediatrics, he would set up moral communities, the doctor, the theologian, the clergyman, the parent. Together they would make a decision. But not the baby.

Well, you say, the baby can't. That's right, babies cannot make those decisions. So the parents should? That's the question.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to one of those all-night radio talk shows. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Laureate, was being interviewed by some literary person who said, "Well, we know your books, lots of us have read your books. I want to talk about you and your life, your personal life. Is that okay?" and Mr. Singer says, "Sure, that's all right." And the interviewer said, "I understand you're a vegetarian," and Mr. Singer says, "Yes, I'm a vegetarian." And the interviewer said, "I understand, Mr. Singer, you eat no fowl at all." "No, I don't eat any fowl at all." And the interviewer asked him, "You don't eat fowl in order to preserve your health?" And Mr. Singer says, "No, that's not the reason. I don't eat fowl to preserve the chicken's health." You gotta remember the chicken.

That was the whole point this morning. Remember the chickens, not just yourselves. There are some people who are vegetarians not for themselves but for the chickens. And there are people who work in this business, not just for themselves. Of course, everybody has to earn a living. Nobody will criticize you for that. But you gotta remember the chickens. You gotta remember that everything we do shouldn't be only for ourselves.

There's been too much of that. In a general way, there's been too much of that in the world. In our own field, there's been too much of that.

What I'd like to do this afternoon is go into how we can make that world better, some favorite themes of mine, some new ones I've been thinking about. Because it isn't just enough to figure out that the world is naughty, we also have to try to figure out how to make it better.

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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