I apologize to my readers. I have let fear of not being "politically correct" affect some of my blog posting. There is a word I must use, and yet, I fear to, because of the power it had over so many people. That power must be destroyed. Many have been working towards its destruction, and I must "get real" (as a blogger named Michelle who co-runs the Ultimate Blog Challenge tells us) and add my efforts.
I rarely write about one person who is important in my life. That man
is one of my brother in laws. He is in his 50's, yet has been almost
invisible to most people for much of his life.
He has a developmental disability called autism.
Back when he was born, the term "autism" was unknown to most people. I
know that I had never heard of it although one of my favorite aunts,
unknown to me, acted as an advocate for another relative who had a child
with autism. I never knew that, in fact, until the aunt was eulogized
at her funeral.
Meanwhile, I never dreamed I would marry a man who had a brother with a
developmental disability. But I did. I learned, later on, that there
were siblings who never married. Either prospective mates were scared
off, or, worse, the sibs were afraid to give birth to a child with the
same disability. Sadly, enough of those feelings still exist.
When my brother in law was young, there was a place in New York State called Willowbrook. To
anyone of my generation who grew up in the New York metropolitan area,
the mention of Willowbrook brings chills. Feelings of disgust.
Willowbrook was a "state school" for people with mental disabilities.
No, that isn't quite right. I am going to take a deep breath and type
in my blog, a word so loathsome, that many do not dare utter it today.
But the word was common in 1972, the year a local WABC-TV reporter by
the name of Geraldo Rivera did an expose on the place called
Willowbrook. It was a common word when I grew up. It was the word I
was taught, by a type of societal osmosis, to use to describe people
like my brother in law.
The word was "retarded".
Willowbrook was a place where "retarded" people lived, and, basically,
underwent state-sanctioned torture. There is no better way to speak
this terrible truth.
Thank the good Lord that my brother in law was not sent there. Did it ever cross my in laws' mind? I tend to doubt it.
But my brother in law did receive services from an organization called
the "Association for Retarded Children" (later, the "Association for
Retarded Citizens". And the state agency that served people like my
brother in law? Until a handful of years ago, it was called OMRDD, or
the Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
No more, no more. The name "Association for Retarded Citizens" was
abandoned years ago. OMRDD is now OPWDD, the Office for People with
Developmental Disabilities. Amazingly, that name change happened less
than three years ago.
A society that allowed those who are intellectually challenged to be
called "retarded" also permitted a place like Willowbrook to exist. In
fact, Willowbrook existed until 1987. Many of its former residents are
in their 50's and 60's now. Parts of their lives were stolen from them.
But the word "retard" lives on. Young people still insult and bully
others with that term. And yes, there are those who will condemn me for
even daring to use the word at all. Yes, its use is that charged with
negative meaning. But I must be real, and I must use that word.
My brother in law is not "a retard". In fact, he is far from stupid. I
have a feeling he knows more than any of us will ever realize. Part of
his disability is his difficulty in communicating with others.
I bet he knows he does not want to go back to the "good old days", the days of "retards" and Willowbrook.
We must go forward in our understanding, forward in our acceptance of
those with autism and others different from us. We must never hide them
away again. They are a part of us.
And we must make sure a place like Willowbrook never, ever exists again.