Disability Rights and Freedom of Expression

On 1972, “Geraldo Rivera”, a television reporter began a 10-Part investigative series on ABC TV Station in New York City. His subject was the in-humane warehousing of then called “mentally retarded” people in Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, New York. The series made news media history and was one of the reports that had a lot to do with changes in mental institutions across the U.S.A.

From the original report “there was one attendant for perhaps 50 severely and profoundly retarded children lying on the floor naked and smeared with their own feces, they were making a pitiful sound, a kind of mournful wale that is impossible for [me] to forget, this what it looked like, this what it sounded like, but how can [I] tell you about the way it smelled. It smelled a filth, it smelled of disease and it smelled of death”.

The nation watched with horror the shocking video of Willowbrook State School. The elected officials of the US Congress held several hearings to nailed-down the institutional magnitude of failure at Willowbrook and other facilities.

The Congress pre-empted States from regulating the matter because they demonstrated egregious failure in providing the necessary standard of care to people with disabilities.

Congress created a system called the “Protection Advocacy System” for each State across the Country with very broad authorities to walk -in to facilities to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect, examine the care and ultimately provide the necessary care and advocacy to individuals within such facilities.

On the Judicial front, parents of Willowbrook residents brought a class action alleging violation of the residents’ Constitutional rights to adequate treatment under the Equal Protection Clause as well as the fact that existing conditions violated the patients’ rights under the Due Process Clause both vested in the Fourteenth Amendment.

The Court issued an injunctive relief to stop use of improper medical and physical restraints and order immediate hiring of employees, reduction of number of residents per facility, buying of clotting and improve conditions at Willowbrook.

Congress passed the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act on 1975 and the Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act on 1980.
On 1985, the Senate held hearings again about the state of mental care for people in State hospitals.
Testimonies were still equally alarming detailing beating and abuse and little treatment except for medications to keep patients quiet.

The Senate did an investigation and visited over 30 institutions across 12 States in the country concluding that residents were subject to serious abuse, physical injury, sexual advances and rape, verbal threats and other forms of intimidation.

The Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act and Civil Rights for Institutionalized Persons Act were the first federal civil rights laws protecting people with disabilities which culminated to the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act on 1990 which established comprehensive protection for people with a variety of disabilities in many aspects of public life.

A watershed case in the evolution of the legal rights of people with disabilities to live in dignity arose out of public awareness of the horrific conditions under which children and adults with disabilities were living at the Willowbrook State Developmental Center in New York. This case set important precedents for the humane and ethical treatment of people with developmental disabilities living in institutions. This, in turn, served as the impetus for accelerating the pace of community placements for people with developmental disabilities, expanding community services, increasing the quality and availability of day programs, and establishing the right of children with disabilities to a public education. (Retrieved from https://disabilityjustice.org/the-closing-of-willowbrook/).

But for; the Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Press which Mr. Reveira was privileged to enjoy and practice with conscientious coupled with the Concept of Elected Government Officials and Political Accountability according to which US Congressmen were prompted to investigate and rectify the issue, that curse of Willowbrook would still have been spreading its plague generation after generation nationwide rendering helpless group of people “hopeless”.

Hossameldin Abdelkarim Esq.

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