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In Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court found that "separate facilities are inherently unequal." Congress has subsequently regarded Brown as equally important in prohibiting segregation on the basis of disability. This decision influenced future disability legislation, including the Education for All Handicapped Children Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

1971 Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania et al . was a landmark decision by a Federal District Court that affirmed the right of children with disabilities to a free public education and certain due process procedural safeguards. This case was significant in that it challenged the very existence of institutions.

Mills v. Board of Education was similar to, and supported and expanded the Pennsylvania case. Mills held that no child could be denied a public education because of "mental, behavioral, physical, or emotional handicaps or deficiencies." During the trial, an exchange took place between the judge and representatives of the District of Columbia. The state apparently agreed that all children should be educated and classes established as soon as Congress appropriated the funds. In response, the judge said, "If sufficient funds are not available to finance all of the services and programs that are needed and desirable in the system then the available funds must be expended equitably in such a manner that no child is entirely excluded from a publicly supported education consistent with his needs and ability to benefit therefrom. The inadequacies of the District of Columbia public school system, whether occasioned by insufficient funding or administrative inefficiency, certainly cannot be permitted to bear more heavily on the exceptional or handicapped child than on the normal child."

Dr. Gunnar Dybwad made the following observation about Mills: "Every so often we hear, 'We will take care of the disabled when we find some money'. No, they have the right to the good and the bad with all of us."


In Wyatt v. Stickney, a Federal District Court held that individuals who are mentally ill or mentally retarded have a constitutional right to treatment in the least restrictive setting necessary.

In 1970, the guardian of Ricky Wyatt initiated a class action suit against the Alabama Department of Mental Hygiene, alleging failure of the state to provide proper treatment at the Partlow State School and Hospital. The decree, issued by the Court, stipulated that all community resources must first be explored before admission to an institution is considered, no individual should remain in a residential facility longer than necessary, and no person should be returned to the community indiscriminately. The decree included a 20-page appendix that defined minimum treatment standards that the state the judgment would be carried out.

The intent was clear that an institution should only be used as a last resort and only if the individual's needs can be met. Wyatt helped to pave the way for deinstitutionalization and gave greater visibility to the potential impact of the legal system on improving the lives of people with disabilities.


New York State Association for Retarded Citizens et al. v. Carey et al., a class action brought against the state of New York in 1972, alleged multiple violations at the Willowbrook State School and Hospital on Staten Island. At the beginning of this lawsuit, Willowbrook housed 5,200 people and was 65% over the rated bed capacity. Allegations included:

  1. Most residents were confined for unspecified periods, usually until they recovered.
  2. Residents who should have been released were not.
  3. No habilitation was occurring to justify the confinement of residents.
  4. There was no individual habilitation plan for residents.
  5. There were no periodic evaluations of residents to assess their progress and redefine their goals and programs.
  6. There were no educational programs provided for residents.
  7. Services such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy were inadequate, if available at all.
  8. The facility was overcrowded.
  9. The residents had no privacy, and regulations to protect them from theft of personal property were nonexistent.
  10. The residents were not protected against assault and injury, either by other residents or staff.
  11. Experimentation was practiced on residents.
  12. Residents were not given adequate clothing.
  13. The diet was inadequate, and the meals were rushed.
  14. The facility was dirty.
  15. Toilet facilities were not adequate to accommodate the institutional population.
  16. Residents were segregated from those of the opposite sex.
  17. Many residents were confined to beds or chairs, or kept in solitary confinement.
  18. Many residents were denied privileges on the grounds of the institution and practically no one was given a pass.
  19. Residents were not given help in reading, writing, or posting mail.
  20. Non-English speaking residents had difficulty communicating.
  21. Residents were not compensated for work performed.
  22. The facility was understaffed with professionals and paraprofessionals. The absence of proper supervision contributed to the death of some residents, where the cause of death was attributed to aspiration of food or vomit.
  23. Medical facilities were inadequate.
  24. Many of the professional staff were shown to be incompetent.

After three years, a consent decree was approved by the Court. The decree called for a major upgrading of the facility's programs, recognition of the residents' rights, and a ten-year phase down of the residential population to no more than 250 individuals.