The Willowbrook State School, a psychiatric facility that mistreated its patients in an unspeakable manner, represents a dark chapter in American history. Exposed by journalist Geraldo Rivera in 1972, the misdeeds of Willowbrook became known as a catalyst for change in legislation in order to protect the civil rights of the mentally disabled. However, despite many improvements, the issue raised half a century ago remains relevant today, as the economic situation could potentially lead to the re-emergence of prison-like institutions.
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Fighting the Stigma
There is no denying that the country’s attitude towards the mentally disabled has changed for the better since the release of the documentary “Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook” (1996). Moreover, positive changes in legislation have been made in order to ensure a better quality of life for mental health patients. For instance, education for all disabled children has been promoted, preferably “in a setting with their peers who do not have disabilities whenever possible” (Perlin, 2008, p. 613). The film showed the human side of the victims, some of whom managed to recover from their trauma and lead happy and fulfilling lives. The documentary can be credited for starting the dialogue on mental health issues all across the country and eventually helping de-stigmatize mental disability, albeit not entirely.
Coinciding with the beginning of the new millennium, the film provided the foundation for a new era, where the mentally disabled were starting to be seen as human beings – not liabilities. Having brought mental health issues to the table in such a humane and heartfelt manner, the film creators finally managed to change the public attitude towards the mentally disabled in the USA. As a result, the fight against stigma is more evolved today, namely, focusing on the promotion of fair mental disability representation in the media. In particular, better representation in Hollywood should be viewed as a positive sign, considering that “certain groups have always been easier to stereotype than to write in truth” (Thompson, 2011, p. 3). Consequently, in the past decade alone prominent films featuring characters with mental illness or disabilities have become more commonplace.
Society has changed greatly since the Willowbrook reveal of 1972 and the documentary of 1996. The term “retarded”, used so profoundly at the time, has all but ceased to exist in the professional and social circles, and the emerging rhetoric is getting more tolerant. It seems that other positive changes are underway, as mental health awareness has drastically increased worldwide. For that reason, another Willowbrook happening these days seems highly unlikely at first glance. If it did happen, public outrage alone could lead to a complete re-evaluation of the country’s health system. However, in the current economic situation, there is a worrying trend towards reducing costs in the medical sector, a factor that largely caused the Willowbrook tragedy half a century ago. Mental institutions still exist, and, while they are incomparably more humane than Willowbrook, patients can still be mistreated and their rights can still be violated. With one step in the wrong direction, without realizing it, the country could create a climate for another Willowbrook. Maybe at a time like this, a new film is needed to remind the country of the horrors of the past, still vivid in the memory of the survivors and their families.
Despite all the positive changes in society, Willowbrook is not just a nightmare from the past – it remains a very real possibility in the present. Due to the current economic situation in the country, there is a risk of recreating the system that caused Willowbrook, and it is essential to take action to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Perlin, M. L. (2008). Simplify you, classify you: Stigma, stereotypes and civil rights in disability classification systems. Ga. St. UL Rev., 25(1), 607-639.
Thompson, S. R. (2011). From Dumbo to Nemo: Disability stereotypes and representation over 60 years in Disney animated films. University of Cincinnati, 1(1), 1-24.
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