CSI Remembers the Legacy of Willowbrook with Annual Lecture

The College of Staten Island presents its annual Willowbrook Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, April 2 in the Center for the Arts Recital Hall from 3:30pm to 5:30pm. This year’s Lecture topic will be “Willowbrook on Campus,” the importance of engaging students and faculty in teaching and learning about Willowbrook. The event is free and open to the public. Refreshments and a reception will follow.

The land that now houses the CSI campus was once home to the Willowbrook State School, a facility for individuals with mental disabilities that was officially closed by the State of New York in 1987, a process initiated by press reports in the early 1970s of abysmal living conditions at the facility.

David Goode, Professor of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work at CSI, and moderator of the lecture, notes that “one can appreciate the historical significance of Willowbrook State School in the treatment of people with disability, which is simultaneously extremely negative and positive. The negative significance of Willowbrook is that it actually was, and became a symbol of, a very low point in the care of people, with and without disability, in the history of American society. Innocent children and adults were forced to live in such unthinkably inhumane conditions that it causes any reasonable person to ask him or herself, how could this have been possible in an enlightened society such as 20th-century America? What forces allowed it or caused it to be such that, to paraphrase a 1970s Staten Island politician, ‘in the richest country in the world, in the richest state in that country, we could have such an abomination as Willowbrook.’

“Willowbrook’s positive significance,” Goode continues, “is that the exposé of these conditions and the subsequent closing of the institution became critical events in the normalization of life for people with developmental disabilities. The closing of Willowbrook State School and the legal precedents it set profoundly influenced the deinstitutionalization movement all over the United States, and the Willowbrook Consent Decree [requiring New York State to ensure that the residents of the School were provided with proper care and facilities] laid the groundwork for the development of community services. Willowbrook in this regard can be a symbol to governments all over the world, many of which operate terrible institutions for the disabled, that places like it need not exist and that alternative, more humane ways to help people with disabilities can be adopted.”

Lecture panelists will include CSI faculty members David Goode, Linda Coull (Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy), Darryl Hill (Psychology), James Kaser (the CSI Library), and Ed Meehan (Psychology). Vanessa DeBello, a CSI student whose mother lived at Willowbrook will also be on the panel. The event’s opening speaker will be Duncan Whiteside, a parent of a child who lived at Willowbrook.

Goode states that “CSI acknowledges its unique responsibility to honor the memory of the history of our campus, which includes fostering teaching and scholarship…We urge faculty and students to attend this important event and in the hope that they will come to appreciate Willowbrook’s academic richness and significance.

For more information on the Willowbrook Memorial Lecture, call David Goode at 718.982.3757.

The College of Staten Island presents its annual Willowbrook Memorial Lecture.

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