In the 1950’s, local schools or services did not train or educate the “mentally retarded,” so my younger brother Fred was institutionalized at the age of four. Although the Willowbrook State School was in a bucolic setting, the ratio of three staff to fifty residents prohibited Fred’s playing outdoors except every other week when Mom, Dad and I visited—the stench of urine permeated the green tiled hallways; tiny bodies stampeded toward us, misshapen faces calling “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” The presumed training and education were restricted by the struggle to simply feed each child within three minutes, monitor halls for nudists and hitters, and combat the ubiquitous dysentery. Put a person in a barren room with peers banging their heads against walls or playing in their own feces, and that person will forget he is a person.
By the time this notorious place was exposed in 1972, educators had come to realize that all people were capable of making choices. That we learn by watching others. My brother was a twenty-year-old… not knowing how to learn.
Fred moved into a community-based group apartment. Yet when he visited the neighborhood market, movie house, or bowling alley, he was still surrounded by peers… supervised by staff. Attending day programs, he learned how to brush his teeth and how to greet a friend… but again with peers, supervised by staff.
He became alert when among the “unsupervised”: typical folks sipping coffee at a diner; shopping for a winter coat; buying a cup of vanilla ice cream. So I spent more time with him.
Fred’s innate energy captivated strangers—women charmed by his humor asked to marry.
“You’re a meatball!” became his signature retort, unintelligible words patiently repeated until comprehended.
“You’re fat!” said to all, was clear.
“Fred, you’re being rude; people have feelings!” I always reminded him.
“What’s that?” became his recurrent question, as he put names to objects, stunning me when he asked not what the stereo system was but why the sound came out.
At the age of forty-five, my brother asked to learn to read.
Fred and his teacher put labeled drawings into a notebook, which also supported verbal communication: sad… happy… mad.
Typical people learned he had feelings… but would he ever reciprocate?
He proudly wrote his first name, was excited to tackle his last.
With computer software, in addition to studying letters, he became a student of numbers. Although occasionally stopping a lesson, embarrassed not to understand, he surprised me while ascending the stone stairs of my local park, chanting, “Six, seven, eight.”
Fred’s workweek included volunteering to deliver food to the elderly or affix stamps for a nursing organization. But he most enjoyed doing industrial piecework because he crossed the street to spend his earnings at the snack store—unsupervised.
One day I was feeling ill and telephoned with guilt that I wouldn’t be visiting as planned. He immediately responded by clearly enunciating, “Take it easy.”
And then I was certain.
All people can learn.
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