Dennis Downey

Dennis Downey

I would like to correct at least one reader’s impression that the book “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” inaccurately portrays life behind institutional walls. I offer these thoughts while gratefully acknowledging the attention paid to this groundbreaking book by Jack Brubaker, Lancaster’s own “Scribbler.”

Edited by Jim Conroy and myself, the book appeared on the 30th anniversary of the 1990 signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. It is endorsed by award-winning author Rachel Simon, theologian and activist Bill Gaventa and Dick and Ginny Thornburgh, who were kind enough to write the foreword.

Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Chester County was conceived in the era of eugenics as response to the “menace of the feeble-minded.” Over eight decades of operation (1908-1987), Pennhurst housed more than 10,600 residents. At its height, this state-run facility had 3,500 residents, with almost 1,000 more in two nearby annexes.

“Inmates” is what they were called in the official record — and less flattering names in popular discourse and public health circles. Most all had an intellectual or developmental disability, and their confinement occurred without consent or the right to leave.

As the book thoroughly documents from court records; interviews with advocates and former residents; official transcripts; government documents; and undercover investigations that led to the prosecution of a dozen staff members, Pennhurst was a nightmare for many residents.

The lead investigator is someone we have come to know well through hours of personal interviews. What this state policeman witnessed is chilling and dispiriting, to say the least. His discoveries prompted a federal civil rights inquiry into practices at Pennhurst.

The moments of terror included rapes and sexual assaults, medical experimentation, cages and shackles to enforce compliance and a woeful pattern of neglect and mistreatment. It was customary that residents who needed dental work did not receive any numbing or pain medication.

Unlike other institutions in Pennsylvania and across the nation, there is no record of sexual sterilizations being performed at Pennhurst. I encourage readers to go online and watch Bill Baldini’s searing 1968 documentary report entitled “Suffer the Little Children.”

In 1985 Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall issued an opinion from the bench that drew an explicit parallel between institutions like Pennhurst and Jim Crow segregation. He saw the two phenomena as programs intended to regress or eliminate two classes of citizens.

Litigation over Pennhurst’s abuse and neglect of residents transformed American constitutional law and established the right to a free public education, social services and humane treatment, and paved the way for people with intellectual disabilities to live in the community.

As we document, this return to citizenship and community is one of the great and often unheralded social transformations in modern American history. I simply will note that the 19th Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act share milestone anniversaries this summer.

Yes, there were good staff members at Pennhurst who fought against the pervasive culture of mistreatment, but that cannot excuse what happened. The system was at fault, but so too were the people who perpetrated the commonplace patterns of abuse.

And no, the issue of former residents going homeless is unfounded. It is somewhat ironic that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Veterans Center, which now resides on the Pennhurst campus, has itself been accused of tolerating medical malfeasance in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The final indignity, as we say in the book, is the Pennhurst Asylum haunted house attraction that generates more than $2 million in revenue each autumn. The only ghosts that haunt Pennhurst are the memories of those further victimized by this commercialization of atrocity. A fidelity to the truth requires the whole story be told.

Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is a Millersville University emeritus professor of history and co-editor of “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights.”

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