I keep returning to the words of Robert F. Kennedy, standing before metal microphones, at a press conference held in 1965, when he states that he has visited the state institutions for the “mentally retarded” and “I think particularly at Willowbrook we have a situation that borders on a snake pit.” RFK continues: “The children live in filth; [and] many of our fellow citizens are suffering tremendously.”
The combination of RFK’s enormous empathy and his evocation of a nation that ought to care about its fellow citizens is both disturbing and stunning. Disturbing because nearly fifty years later many of our country’s disabled continue to suffer; and stunning as this elected official had conviction and courage to condemn publicly a deeply dysfunctional, yet powerful institution.
Over time, I thought that I had packed away my memories of Willowbrook, the defunct state institution whose name is synonymous with deplorable residential conditions for the disabled. But then Daryl walks through the door of our law center—a deaf man with a nearly incredible story to share.
Born in 1959 and residing in Staten Island, at age three Daryl has the unfortunate luck to fall from a swing. He lands on his head; and suffers a traumatic injury that includes loss of hearing. Daryl’s mom, overwhelmed, sends Daryl off to Willowbrook. At Willowbrook, there are no deaf children; no one teaches Daryl American Sign Language; and Daryl spends his days on a ward with so many other sad and distressed children.
Over the years there, Daryl intermittently attends school; does not understand his teachers (his few friends teach him the “ABC’s”); spends his days in a long, crowded room and often simply does nothing. Daryl has no visitors, but rather passes the hours by peering out at the barbed wire fence.
On days when he is the target of physical attacks by other children or staff, he seeks refuge in a cardboard box to avoid beatings. Doctors and nurses administer medication to sedate him when he is agitated; and he cries often and is terrified by the entire enterprise. Daryl wonders where his mother is and whether he has brothers or sisters.
When I hear Daryl’s story, I think that it must be an exaggeration. Then, I view a promotion for an old documentary on Willowbrook broadcast on YouTube and I hear a doctor who works there explain that the children are not going to school; instead, they are “sitting on the ward all day” and “are not being talked to by anyone.” Many of the children are “contracting the same diseases” as they are “sharing the same toilet” as there are perhaps one or two or three supervisors for 70 children. Daryl is right. His memory does not fail him.
Meantime, years pass; Willowbrook closes; and Daryl ages.
Looking back, Daryl tells us that he has worked at two fast food chains over the past twenty years. He cooks fried chicken, carefully pouring oil into a frying machine. Daryl sweeps floors; and cleans windows and bathrooms and tables. He is a loyal employee; beloved by management and faithful to customers. Over the past twenty years of steady and dependable employment, Daryl earns a place in the world of work, a noble distinction not often enjoyed by many of our other clients. And Daryl is compensated for his efforts: after twenty years, he earns slightly more than minimum wage in New York. Daryl earns $7.65 an hour.
With assistance from our law center, Daryl is requesting a modest wage increase. Management informs us that his application looks promising. Daryl is optimistic.
Additionally, we represent Daryl in Housing Court,
successfully resisting his landlord’s attempts to evict him because he has
fallen behind in his payment of rent. To this end, we are assisted by the
generosity of The Good People Fund, a steady ally of the indigent deaf
community, which is helping Daryl satisfy his rental arrears.
Redemption approaches in the most incremental of
ways; but our dear client, Daryl, teaches us that the thing is to believe,
always, that our future shall be better than yet even our past.