50th Anniversary of the Willowbrook Expose

January 24, 2022

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Willowbrook expose, a very important part of the disability rights movement.  In 1972 Geraldo Rivera, a reporter, did an exposé called Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace, on the conditions at Willowbrook State School which was an institution for children with intellectual disabilities located on Staten Island in New York City from 1947 until 1987. Rivera exposed the institution’s serious overcrowding, dehumanizing practices, dangerous conditions and regular abuse of residents. The school was designed for 4,000, but by 1965 it had a population of 6,000.

Following the exposé, there was public outrage, a lawsuit from parents of Willowbrook residents that alleged conditions at Willowbrook violated the constitutional rights of the residents, and a legislative push for change. The expose spurred NY state’s senior senator, Jacob Javits, to action, incorporating the first P&A program – Protection and Advocacy for People with Developmental Disabilities (PADD) – in 1975 in the renewal of the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights (DD) Act. There is a designated P&A in every state and territory. Disability Rights South Carolina is the designated P&A for South Carolina.

One key to making the P&A system successful was that Congress gave every P&A broad authority to access service providers that provide services, care, and treatment to people with disabilities.  This includes, but is not limited to, schools, group homes, day programs, adult care homes, nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, and residential treatment facilities. With our access authority we can go into any setting where services are provided, unannounced, to check in on the people who are there. The people who run these settings must allow us to come in and speak to anyone we want. We can ask questions and look for things that could hurt someone. We can also educate the individuals served and the staff about the rights of people with disabilities. Our access authority applies to both state-run and privately owned settings.

Congress made it clear that P&As were here to make sure Willowbrook never happened again. Since the beginning of the P&A system, Disability Rights South Carolina’s core mission has been to stop and end the abuse and neglect of people with disabilities. Although, we have achieved a lot in the 50 years since this expose, we must also recognize there is much more still to do.

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