College of Staten Island to mark 2022 as The Year of Willowbrook

The College of Staten Island/CUNY, housed on the former site of the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island, New York, is marking 2022 as The Year of Willowbrook, a year of public programming to commemorate several significant Willowbrook anniversaries. Programming will include the installation of the Willowbrook Mile, an interpretive walking trail on the Willowbrook campus.

The Willowbrook State School was the world’s largest institution to house persons diagnosed with intellectual and developmental disabilities when it opened in the 1940s. 2022 marks a number of significant anniversaries in its history: the 75th anniversary of its opening, the 50th anniversary of Geraldo Rivera’s televised exposé that brought its problems to national attention, and the 35th anniversary of Willowbrook’s closing. The Willowbrook Mile is an interpretive trail on the former Willowbrook site, now the campus of the College of Staten Island. The Willowbrook Mile Project is a collaboration among the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the Institute for Basic Research (IBR), the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD), and the College of Staten Island. It aims to preserve the site’s history, and to create a visionary presence that commemorates the social justice and deinstitutionalization movement to ensure the rights of all persons to live with dignity and thrive in their communities.

In addition to the official launch of The Year of Willowbrook in January, several events will address the evolution of the Willowbrook State School from model institution to disgrace, the advocacy that led to its closure, the extraordinary advancements made in ensuring the rights of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and the ongoing crusade for education and memorialization surrounding those affected by Willowbrook and by other institutions like it.  Some highlights of The Year of Willowbrook will include:

  • January: Official launch press conference introducing the Willowbrook Mile and Year of Willowbrook programming, with messages from local and national elected officials
  • February: Reflections on the50th Anniversary of the original broadcast of Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, the ABC television exposé by Geraldo Rivera
  • March: Broadcast of CSI’s 2021 Willowbrook Memorial Lecture, “Avoiding the Next Willowbrook: Lessons Learned about Activism from Parents”
  • April: The 2022 Annual Willowbrook Memorial Lecture
  • May: Broadcast of footage of the 25th Anniversary of Willowbrook’s closing with a live discussion panel
  • June-July: Movie screenings with live panel discussions about  Willowbrook, including
  • Willowbrook (2012)
  • Unforgotten: Twenty-Five Years After Willowbrook (1996)
  • Forget Me Not (2020)
  • September: Groundbreaking for the Willowbrook Mile

Alongside the marquee events above, extensive programming will support The Year of Willowbrook,  including CSI faculty and professional staff presentations on disability studies, authors’ panels on Willowbrook, and events organized by the Institute for Basic Research, the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, and other partners. A comprehensive website will be made available in January, containing details that outline the Willowbrook Mile, a 10-station trail on campus grounds that takes visitors through the history, advocacy, and deinstitutionalization movement.

To learn more about the Willowbrook Mile and The Year of Willowbrook, visit their website.  Those wanting to learn more, get involved, or contribute to the projects can contact Nora Santiago at 719.982.2354 or willowbrook@csi.cuny.edu.

The Year of Willowbrook is a project of the Willowbrook Mile Working Group, whose members represent the College and the larger Willowbrook community: 

  • Diane Buglioli (community advocate and co-founder of A Very Special Place, Inc.)
  • Eric Goldberg (self-advocate, GED graduate through continuing education and CSI’s Melissa Riggio Program)
  • Dr. David Goode, PhD (CSI Sociology professor emeritus)
  • Laura J. Kennedy (parent advocate, The Arc New York)
  • Dr. Catherine Lavender, PhD (CSI History professor and Director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program), Co-Chair
  • Jorma Loci, RA, LEED AP BD+C, Campus Planning Office (Architectural Designer of the Willowbrook Mile)
  • David Pizzuto (CSI’s Interim Director of Communications)
  • Jose Rivera (community advocate and brother of a former Willowbrook resident)
  • Nora Santiago (CSI Urban Policy Analyst), Co-Chair
  • Timothy Smolka (self-advocate and CSI professional staff member)
  • Dr. Nelly Tournaki, PhD (CSI Special Education professor)

About Willowbrook State School and The Willowbrook Mile

Willowbrook State School was the largest institution in the world in which people with disabilities were locked away from society. In 1938, the New York State Legislature had authorized the building of a school for what they then termed “mental defectives.” The Willowbrook site was selected and the buildings erected in the early 1940s. However, when the U.S. entered the Second World War, the site was turned over to the military for use as a hospital and prisoner-of-war camp, Halloran Hospital, and operated in that capacity until 1951. As Halloran Hospital was closing down, the property returned to its original intended purpose as the Willowbrook State School. It opened in 1947, intended to serve as a model of treatment for persons with intellectual and other disabilities.

When it opened, Willowbrook attempted to provide better care in an institutional setting than could be provided at home. However, the mere scope and size of the more-than-380-acre Willowbrook State School impaired its ability to provide normal, personalized comfort and care. As conditions worsened, a group of residents’ families and staff urged change. By the 1970s, they invited reporters to share the story more widely. Media coverage and this activism led to a lawsuit resulting in a 1975 Consent Judgement ordering that Willowbrook residents receive humane treatment and adequate clinical and educational services. This also set in motion the eventual closure of Willowbrook in 1987 and began the development of community-based services. Along with the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the Willowbrook Judgement helped lead to later key legal protections, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In the early 1990s, spurred by a conviction that nothing like the Willowbrook story should ever happen again, the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council, the primary advocacy group on Staten Island for persons with disabilities and their families, formed the Willowbrook Property Planning Committee. They began to work on collecting and preserving the history of the Willowbrook State School and to increase the visibility of the stories of those who had once lived and worked in the facility. 

In the 2010s, the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council partnered with the other stakeholders on the Willowbrook site: the College of Staten Island/CUNY, the Institute for Basic Research (IBR), and the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) – to establish a memorial walking trail that has become the Willowbrook Mile. The Mile is designed to preserve the site’s history, and to create a visionary presence that commemorates the social justice and deinstitutionalization movement to ensure the rights of all persons to live with dignity and thrive in their communities.

Embracing the Willowbrook legacy and addressing the needs of persons with disabilities runs through the fabric of the College of Staten Island’s culture. One of the College’s signature programs celebrating the Willowbrook legacy is the Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program, which since 2008 has provided fully-inclusive college experiences for non-matriculated students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Our Creative Exchange program recognizes CSI’s responsibilities to persons with developmental disabilities on Staten Island, and provides continuing education classes on a variety of topics for this population.  The College also houses the Center for Student Accessibility (including Project REACH), Master’s degree programs in Special Education and in Social Work focused on disabilities, an Advanced Certificate in Autism Spectrum Disorders, and a minor degree track in Disability Studies. Since 1993, the College has hosted an annual Willowbrook Memorial Lecture which, in addition to a number of other campus events and the Willowbrook Collection in the CSI Library, has worked to keep the Willowbrook legacy alive in our community.