[Image Descriptions: Image 1 - A suitcase from the Willard Psychiatric Center. The suitcase contains clothing, belts, and shoes. The shoes are light blue silk mules with wooden heels and cream closures. Image 2 - A cardboard box stamped “Willard State Hospital” with its contents alongside it. The box contained two pairs of black leather boots, a wooden prosthetic leg, and a leather and metal leg brace. Image 3 - A quote in black text on a white background that reads “Q’s competitive income has afforded him new economic freedoms…And with his next paychecks he plans to buy clothes and shoes for himself.” Image 4 - A suitcase from the Willard Psychiatric Hospital. It contains a pair of maroon and brown flats/slippers that have a bow on the toe. Inside one of the shoes is a yellow price tag that reads $1.50. Image 5 - A suitcase from the Willard Psychiatric Center. The suitcase contains a pair of black men’s oxfords and a set of suspenders.]
Shoes, Suitcases, and Supreme Court Decisions: Olmstead Then and Now
This past week marked the 15th anniversary of the Olmstead decision. The Olmstead decision affirmed the constitutionality of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) integration mandate and articulated that:
Public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when (1) such services are appropriate; (2) the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and (3) community-based services can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the public entity and the needs of others who are receiving disability services from the entity. (Source)
The Olmstead decision declared that unnecessary institutionalization was a civil rights violation and began to remove the institutionalization bias within communities, service provision, and society at large for people living with mental illness and significant disabilities. Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson were the two plaintiffs in the suit. Both women had mental illness and developmental disabilities and spent most of their young adult lives in various state institutions. Though they completed their treatment, and mental health professionals stated that each was ready to move to a community-based program, they remained in the institution. In 1995, they filed suit under ADA for release from the hospital, and in 1999 the US Supreme Court made the final ruling. Elaine Wilson died in 2005, and Lois Curtis went on to continue advocating for people with disabilities and to pursue a career as an artist. In 2011, she was asked to the White House to meet President Obama.
Lois’ and Elaine’s experiences living in Georgia state institutions were likely not that different from the owners of the suitcases pictured above. The Willard Psychiatric Center, formerly the Willard Asylum and the Willard State Hospital, was New York state institution located in the Finger Lakes that admitted more 50,000 patients in its 126 year existence from1869 to1995. Though it no longer operated as a pyschiatric facility, it is now a drug rehabilitation center for prisoner. (A number of other blog posts could be written just on that.) When the Willard Psychiatric Center closed, a staff person was assigned to go through all of the buildings and determine what should be salvaged.
She unlocked an attic door behind which was a collection of over 400 suitcases containing the possessions of former patients. The cases had been put into storage when their owners were admitted to Willard sometime between 1910 and 1960. (Source)
Upon their discovery, the suitcases went to the New York State Museum and have since been cataloged by photographer John Crispin. Many of the suitcases were untouched since their owners packed them decades earlier before entering the institution. They contained all sorts of items: shoes, clothing, pictures of family and friends, embroidery, silverware, among many other things. Anna, Henry, Marian, and Lawrence all of whose cases are shown here, could have been committed for a variety of reasons: schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy, promiscuity, homosexuality, intense prolonged grief were all reasons someone could be sent to the Willard facility. Regardless of the reason for being admitted to the Willard Psychiatric Center, little rehabilitation occurred and many of the patients received no medication, which makes one wonder why these individuals remained there in the first place. Whether or not “progress” was made or whether a patient advocated for their release, because of prevailing attitudes and barriers and the lack of any policy like the ADA, the vast majority of the patients remained at the Willard until they died and were then buried in the institution’s cemetery in unmarked graves.
For inanimate objects, these suitcases do a lot. The suitcases and their contents bear witness to the lives the Willard patients left behind upon being institutionalized. From the contents of the cases, viewers can imagine being Lawrence’s shoes and heading off to work wearing black oxfords and suspenders. Anna attending a party in her blue satin mules or Marian wearing her maroon slippers and teaching her children how to sew. Perhaps Henry’s wooden leg was named Smith. We get a sense of their hopes and desires. We get a sense of their importance and further how that importance was taken away. In addition to showing what was, suitcases and the objects inside them show what could have been had the societal bias towards institutionalization not been present and if community based supports were available to people with disabilities and their families. The suitcases are reminders of the of the Olmstead decision and the ways in which it has positively impacted the lives of so many.
There has been significant progress within the past 15 since the Olmstead decision of deinstitutionalization of people with disabilities and the provision of community based services. However within the past 5 years the Department of Justice has found 20 states to be in violation of Olmstead. The most recent settlement occurred in Rhode Island. The Department of Justice found that thousands of individuals in Rhode Island still spend the majority of time receiving employment and day services in segregated sheltered workshops and facility-based day programs where they earn an average $2.21 per hour. Almost half of the individuals in segregated employment settings had been there for a decade or longer, and just over one third of individuals have been there for fifteen years or more even though they are capable of and want to receive employment integrated, competitive employment in the community. Because people were confined to these settings indefinitely, they are prevented from advancing towards independence and economic self-sufficiency and contributing to their communities. For more information see the letter of findings.
In April of this year, the United States entered into a statewide settlement agreement with Rhode Island upholding the civil rights of individuals with disabilities who are unnecessarily segregated in sheltered workshops and facility-based day programs. The settlement agreement provides relief to approximately 3,250 individuals with disability over the next ten years. Rhode Island will provide supported employment placements to approximately 2,000 individuals. It will also provide support for high school students with significant disabilities to ensure that they are not tracked into sheltered, segregated subminimumwage employment.
One of the individuals who benefits from the Rhode Island settlement is ORQUIDEO or “Q” as he is called. Q graduated from high school at age 21 and then Q went straight into a sheltered workshop, where he worked for 8 years and earned $2.85 an hour doing piece rate work. Since the settlement, Q shared with his job coach that he had an interest in working with cars. They worked together, and Q now earns a competitive salary at an auto-repair shop for 30 hours a week.
Q’s competitive income has also afforded him new financial freedoms…And with his next paychecks, he plans to buy shoes and clothes for himself. (Source)
Fifteen years ago the Olmstead decision asserted that full integration and community inclusion be a reality for people with disabilities. Fifteen years later the enforcement of that assertion is and will continue to be necessary to make such inclusion more than just an aspiration.
What Q’s recent experience in Rhode Island affirms is that inclusion and integration are terms that have very real and concrete meaning that extend to every aspect of life. You can feel inclusion just like you can feel the objects left behind in the Willard suitcases. You can feel integration as you put on your new pair of shoes that you have purchased with money earned at a job that finally pays you a decent wage.