Office for People With Developmental Disabilities

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Remembering Willowbrook 9/19/12


Dear Friends and Colleagues:

This week marks the anniversary of the end of an era in the history of caring for people with developmental disabilities that we must never forget. On September 17, 1987, a promise was fulfilled, and Willowbrook Developmental Center was declared “officially and forever closed.”

It all started 40 years ago with a series of articles in local newspapers, most notably the Staten Island Advance, about a place then known as the Willowbrook State School. A rookie reporter named Geraldo Rivera picked up on the story, and opened the door to a world described by Senator Robert Kennedy as a “snake pit.” Rivera’s documentary, “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace,” earned him a Peabody Award and prompted a government inquiry that eventually led to Willowbrook’s closure. That closure signaled the beginning of a movement toward deinstitutionalization that continues today.

Last week I had the pleasure of introducing one of the men who helped Rivera expose the conditions inside Willowbrook. Bernard Carabello was among the speakers at OPWDD’s opening reception for Remembering Willowbrook at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The traveling exhibit is currently on display at the Port Authority, where it will remain until September 30. Several more stops are planned, with the exhibit’s tour culminating at the College of Staten Island at a date that will be announced in the coming weeks.

In the years since Geraldo Rivera’s exposé and Willowbrook’s permanent closure, OPWDD has gone from close to 30,000 people in institutions to just over 1,000 today. Thirteen institutions have been shuttered, including one last year and one this year, and plans are on track for two additional closures by the end of 2013. Many thousands of individuals are now supported in communities throughout New York State. This includes those who live in 6,200 community homes, as well as those supported to live with their families or in homes of their own. Today, OPWDD and our voluntary partners are committed to ensuring that unjust and inhumane treatment of individuals with developmental disabilities never occurs again, and that those individuals are able to live and work in the communities of their choice. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo has made compliance with the Olmstead decision a priority of his administration. New York State is currently creating an Olmstead implementation plan, which will help seniors and people with developmental disabilities live in the most integrated community settings.

Two public forums on New York’s Olmstead plan have already been held to solicit feedback from individuals with disabilities, families, advocates, service providers, and other stakeholders on ways to improve the delivery of services to people with developmental disabilities. Two more forums are scheduled soon: a public hearing and a video conference, and I encourage you to share your thoughts. Please click here to register or to submit comments.

I also encourage you to visit the Remembering Willowbrook exhibit, where we remember the events of the past, celebrate what we have done to improve the lives of people with disabilities, and look forward to an even brighter future.


Commissioner Burke

P.S. Communication is critical to our collective success, and OPWDD’s Facebook page is a great place for individuals, family members, employees, advocates, and other stakeholders to exchange thoughts and ideas. Please feel free to join the conversation.