An Interview with Dr. Lou Brown
Produced in 1987
Ed Skarnulis: Hello. My name is Ed Skarnulis. Dr. Lou Brown is an educator with the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and he is internationally acclaimed as a leader in the field of special education. He is with us today to talk a little bit about his work with children and adults with developmental disabilities. He has been especially involved in working with people with the most severe disabilities. Some of his very dedicated employees in the Madison School District, some of the employees in the university system, and especially parents, have been involved in Wisconsin in helping to integrate children and adults into schools and vocational settings. Lou is referred to by some people as brilliant, sensitive, humane, dedicated. Parents particularly have been among his most solid supporters because they believe that he understands their needs and the needs of their child. Other people, however, mainly professionals in the field of education, I might add, sometimes characterize Lou as radical, unrealistic, and maybe even a little bit arrogant. Lou, which of those characterizations do you think applies to you, if either one, and how did you get into this field?
Dr. Lou Brown: It is interesting how I got in this field. I was a psychology student in East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina about 20-something years ago. And this is the rural part...one of the more rural parts of North Carolina. And so we had this clinical psychology program and then people needed interns. And I... And so the idea was that these master's level psychology students would then populate the mental health clinics of the state of North Carolina.
And so I was fortunate enough to get admitted to this program. And then in taking courses you learn of assessment and then therapy techniques and what have you, and I just... I just really couldn't keep my mouth shut. I would be the world's worst psychotherapist for a whole bunch of reasons, but mainly because I just can't keep quiet. And so they needed a place to put me to give me an internship, and so they put me in an institution for people who were intellectually disabled. And it was a horrible, horrible place. But I didn't know anything. I didn't grow up with people with disabilities. I did not have any experience with them, and I was just shocked.
In addition to that, my wife was pregnant at the time I was there. And so you just can't take, if you have this baby growing in your family and you have this daily experience of seeing people who are severely disabled, you just can't take it as a professional experience. You can't view it as a detached person in a clinical setting and watching a movie and then the movie's over. I mean, you're living it because you know, there's a reasonable probability that in your family will be one of these people with disabilities. And so it became a very emotional thing. And then we finished the internship. We managed to make it through. And these were the early '60s and this is not a pleasant place. This was not a nice place for people at all, in my judgment.
And so then, but now people tend to take jobs where they have practical experience. And so there was a job open in western North Carolina at an institution, so I took a job there. And because really I was sort of like personally committed to these people. I felt like we could get them to do things. In fact, in those days, it's easy to get them to do things because there was such horrible conditions. So all you've got to do is improve the conditions a little bit and you see these dramatic changes, and so that's very reinforcing.
So we did that, and then we went to Florida State with Jim Forshee and Ben Allen. Ben Allen was a professor at East Carolina who went to Florida State. And Jim Forshee at that time was the chairperson at Florida State. And then we worked at institutions for Moore and Sunland Training Centers in Florida.
And then after about... So now it's about five or six years of institutions, of direct involvement, and at some point you have to say "That's about it," you know. "I've given five years, all the energy, everything you can give, and there's a limit." You can get them from here to here, but that's just not... You still can't produce a decent condition for a human being there. And so we said we've got to try it in the community. We came to Wisconsin in 1969, came to Madison, and had sort of like a mini experience with the institution because there were very few community services and you had to train people at the university to work with people with severe disabilities and there few places you could find them. And so we started off in an institution and in the schools, and then it just blossomed.
It's now... We made a strong personal and professional commitment to develop community services. And it was based on ideology, it was based on practical experience, and it's based on just what you felt the human being should experience. The kind of minute by minute, day to day experiences they should have. And you could never generate them in an institutional setting. And so it's not so much that we knew where we wanted to go; we just knew what we wanted to avoid. So we started saying well, let's try to start a school program and let's start getting involved in work programs. And let's start getting involved where people live. And that's sort of where we are now.