RETARD! RETARD! The hateful words rang out in my memory from forty-eight year ago; forty-eight years back to the mean streets and playgrounds of New York. I was eleven, John was ten. The bully had him cornered. First the ugly words, Retard! Moron! Dummy! Then came the slaps and punches that cowered my brother. This time I would stop him. I turned the bully and sucker-punched him in the mouth; he ran crying. That day the bully left my brother alone. Growing up in the 50s and the 60s there were no guardian angels for children with mental retardation. But there were brothers: call my brother ugly names, hit my brother, then you’ll see my face.
When John was born premature and under-developed the standard advice to parents with disabled children involved putting the infant in an institution where they would likely live out their lives, isolated from society, community and home. By 1982 over one hundred thousand children crowded understaffed “state schools.” Only in these state schools you never went home, you never graduated. In reality, people with disabilities spent their whole lives behind walls they would never breach.
Into this oppressive social environment my brother John was born. My father and mother steadfastly refused the usual advise and kept John at home with the family. There were no services for children with developmental disabilities; families were on their own.
A sea change in the treatment of people with developmental disabilities occurred with the President’s Panel on Mental Retardation during the Kennedy Administration. Two sweeping changes were recommended by the Panel, influencing forever the path for persons with disabilities. The first recommendation moved people out of isolated institutions and back into their home communities. The second recommendation developed services to support the person in their community setting, resulting in the growth of group homes and sheltered workshops.
Families of children with developmental disabilities have always led the advocacy effort, first to insist on deinstitutionalization and then to advocate for community-based services. The harder effort today is for social acceptance from the wider community.
That moment when John won four gold medals for Power lifting at the International Special Olympics was his glory. Through a proud brother’s tears I applauded John on that global stage, his huge grin lighting the room. That day I thought, “Brother, you have come a long way.” All of John’s potential would have remained undiscovered if he was locked behind institutional walls and I would have lost a brother. He deserves to be accepted as a first class citizen. He’s my brother.
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