Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Pennhurst Asylum", or, whatever happened to compassion and respect?

 So the other day I got an email alerting me to this: http://www.pennhurstasylum.com . Needless to say, I got pretty angry. Okay, really angry. So I wrote this letter, which I will be sending to various people. If you have any suggestions, or if something is unclear, let me know. I encourage you to write a letter as well. What the heck is wrong with the world?
October 25, 2011

To whom it may concern:
Halloween is, certainly, a fun time of tricks and terrors.  I understand that, currently, Halloween is a time where the scary, evil, supernatural, and odd are brought out and celebrated.  In the past several decades, Halloween has evolved into a time for scary movies, haunted houses, and haunted hayrides, all activities that can certainly remain harmless and pleasurable for those who enjoy being frightened. 
However, as an advocate for persons with disabilities, and as a predoctoral intern in psychology working with individuals with disabilities, I am outraged by the fact that the former Pennhurst State School will be used as a tourist attraction.  Per your website, you are aware of the history of the school, as well as the abuse and suffering that occurred there.  The historical treatment of people with disabilities is certainly a dark spot in American history and, while much has improved, the lingering effects from these views remain in the varying ways we continue to stigmatize people with disabilities and people with mental illness.  The fact that the known suffering, abuse, and death of former residents of Pennhurst State School will be used as “entertainment” is unacceptable. 
Historically, persons with mental illness and people with disabilities have been perceived as “evil,” supernatural, and something to be feared.  Although these beliefs are not generally held overtly by individuals in today’s society, there continues to be significant shame, stigma, and fear surrounding disability.  “Pennhurst Asylum” as a tourist attraction perpetuates and capitalizes on this oppression and stigma.
Pennhurst State School, and many state schools and institutions similar to Pennhurst, closed in the relatively recent past.  According to your website, Pennhurst began the deinstitutionalization process in 1986; conceivably, there are individuals and their families in the community who survived the horror of living in the actual institution.  The trauma resulting from the inhuman treatment of the people living in the institution is one that affects not only the individuals, but also their families, their communities, and the country as a whole.  Having worked in several facilities for individuals with disabilities, I have personally met, worked with, played with, and laughed with several older adults who lived in various institutions and “state schools” for the majority of their lives.  The impact of these environments on some of society’s most vulnerable citizens is unforgivable.  As people with disabilities attempt to move forward from this time in history and establish their place in society, they continue to work to obtain such basic human rights as safety, freedom, independence, and accessibility.  The daily discrimination, segregation, and barriers faced can be daunting, and the disability movement is largely unnoticed by mainstream society.  By opening Pennhurst State School as a tourist attraction and sensationalizing the horrors of that point in history, “Pennhurst Asylum” is contributing to the marginalization, oppression, and segregation of a population within our society. 
Unless a society is unable to acknowledge its historical mistakes, history is bound to repeat itself in some way.  By sensationalizing the abuse and suffering of a group of people, “Pennhurst Asylum” is not only condoning the acts that have occurred in the past, but also allowing this and other forms of oppression to continue in the future.  Basic respect for the suffering, abuse, and trauma of people is the very least that can be done in a historical location such as Pennhurst State School.  From that respect, I can only hope that we as a society can move towards much needed, and long awaited, respect for the personhood and autonomy of persons with disabilities.
In Peace,

Please write a letter?  You can take ideas and even pieces of mine if you would like.  On the email list I got this through it suggested writing a letter to the Pennhurst people, but also writing a letter to your legislators (particularly if you live in PA), writing a letter to the editor (again, particularly if you live in PA), posting about it on your blog, posting on your Facebook...

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