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"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful
and the powerless means to side with the powerful.
Paolo Freire


Dissatisfaction with institutions grew as the exposés of the 1960s made it clear that the institutions were failing to meet even the most basic needs of the people they were intended to serve. The exposés of the 1960s were capped in 1972 when ABC News reporter Geraldo Rivera visited the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island in New York, the same facility visited by Robert Kennedy in 1965.

The program, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, was seen by millions of viewers. A former doctor at the institution reported that conditions had only become worse since the 1960s.


The exposures of the horrifying realities of the institutions prompted advocates to sue state governments on the grounds that their confinement and treatment of persons with mental retardation were unconstitutional. Because of these suits and public pressure, professionals and government officials scrambled for solutions. Initially, the public policy response was to "fix the institutions."

This gave way to "change them," which in turn was supplanted by the concept of institutions as "a place of last resort." Some institutions should be retained, the thinking went, so there would be somewhere people could go when there was no other place.

On April 30, 2019, Dr. William Bronston delivered a Willowbrook Memorial Lecture at City University New York. Fifty years later, as Dr. Bronston stated, “The only way we’re going to transform the Willowbrooks of society is through law and a new democracy that we have to generate.”

Unabridged Version
Abridged Version

Finally many states arrived at the "close them" stage and settled the lawsuits against them by agreeing to detailed, court-monitored plans to shift residents to smaller facilities and their own communities. In 1975, when a new federal law required that all children with disabilities be provided a public education, the populations at institutions began to plummet. Now that they could send their children to school, parents brought them back home.

Dr. William Bronston’s Willowbrook Memorial Lecture, presented on April 30, 2019 (Complete)
Dr. William Bronston’s Willowbrook Memorial Lecture,
presented on April 30, 2019:
Unabridged Version
Abridged Version