This post is an opinion piece by Robert Nelkin of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. During his 50-year career, Bob led change of human services in a variety of roles at non-profit, university, local state and federal governments, and on behalf of the business community at United Way. Specific positions included: Executive Assistant to the Chair of the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners; Director of Human Services for Allegheny County; Director of Policy Initiatives at the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development, Executive Director of the Governor’s Commission for Children and Families, and President and CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Wrongs to Rights: Fifty Years of Progress for People with Disabilities (April 14, 1973 to April 14, 2023)
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” Dr. Martin Luther King famously assured America in 1968. A half-century later, Dr. King’s prophesy about the civil rights of black Americans also turns out to be true about the human rights of people with disabilities.
Let me explain.
On January 30, 1973, volunteers from the Allegheny County Chapter Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (ARC) (1), daringly revealed the scandalous conditions at Polk State School and Hospital, a Pennsylvania state institution for people with intellectual disabilities. The volunteers (2), who were parents of children with intellectual disabilities, fiercely sought to secure a better future for not just their own children but for all children. I was part of the team as a paid ARC advocate. We arrived at the institution unannounced and, despite resistance from the Superintendent, we insisted on visiting the backwards – uncovering conditions long hidden from the view of parents and others.
The notes (3) from one of our visits 50 years ago documented some of the horrors. The wards were unbelievably overcrowded and understaffed. The individuals were subjected to every conceivable mistreatment and indignity.
We documented: “One hundred beds per bedroom. No schooling or training. Limited interaction by staff. Residents tied to their benches or drugged to be easier to control. Cruel punishments of residents. A child lying in her vomit. The place a ‘hell hole’.”
Extremely upset by what we saw, and the lack of improvement from prior visits, we swore not to stand by while these innocent children and adults were so horribly mistreated. We came back from that visit enraged and resolute to sue the state, pressure public officials to visit and see for themselves (4), demand one thousand residents be moved to alleviate overcrowding, and expose these atrocities to the public. The cruelty had to be stopped once and for all!
As shocking as these revelations were, a greater shock would be soon come a few weeks later. Pennsylvania ARC visitors to another Polk backward saw a woman caged. In another ward, a man was caged. Yes, caged! Human beings caged! On April 14, 1973, precisely 50 years ago, in response to our call for immediate dismantling of the cages, the State Secretary of Public Welfare visited Polk unannounced. When the Superintendent refused to dismantle the cages, he was fired. (5)
It is disturbing to think that people might defend caging innocent human beings. But that is what the Superintendent did and exactly what others did in a moment when they could have chosen right over wrong. Protests of the firing and justifications for the use of cages came in a torrent of hundreds of angry letters, telegrams, phone messages from citizens, employees, elected officials, news media, and organizations. Many gathered in public protests including a mock hanging of the State Secretary of Public Welfare. (6) Unbowed by the blowback, in a matter of months, the Secretary boldly announced a momentous reform plan to swiftly and as officials said “once and for all” address the serious problems at Polk.
In the coming weeks of 2023, Polk will finally be closed. The last couple dozen residents will be moved from this institution that once held more than 3,000 people with intellectual disabilities. While this is news we have been waiting for, it is hard to understand why it took 50 years when other deplorable state institutions closed decades ago.
Polk symbolized the past ways that society treated people with disabilities; now, Pennsylvania has made exceptional progress for individuals with disabilities, their families and our society. The new way includes a right to public education, substantial government financial support for programs, more help for families, manageable scale and normalcy of residences, more accommodations and inclusion into and embrace by communities.
I have wondered if the scandalous abuse and neglect we exposed at Polk could happen again. I do not think it likely. Individuals now live in their own communities not far away, out of sight and out of mind. Mistreatment will be harder to hide. Families will insist on not losing hard-fought gains. Advocates have learned and will be eternally vigilant. Younger generations are more caring as they have grown up side-by-side with individuals in their homes, schools, and communities. There is much less stigma and discrimination. In fact, young people today often discover that their own lives can be enriched by engaging individuals with disabilities as true equal friends sharing fun, joy, and feelings.
Beyond disability rights, are there lessons from this historical saga for people seeking justice? Yes, this is a story that should encourage citizens, advocates and groups pursuing a just society. We learned that achieving social progress requires audacity, resolve, and firm moral convictions to stand against wrong and to do what is right. We learned: with steadfast perseverance over many years — social justice is possible.
(1) Now known as Achieva
(2) Virginia Thornburgh (Team leader), Barbara Sistik, Jean Isherwood
(6) Documentation of the visits and the public fury about the dismantling of the cages and Superintendent firing is available online https://historicpittsburgh.org/collection/nelkin-acc-parc-records