In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the original broadcast and as part of the 2022 Year of Willowbrook at the College of Staten Island, the Willowbrook Legacy Project will present an evening of reflection and discussion with Geraldo Rivera, entitled Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, Reflections on the 50th anniversary of ABC’s television exposé.  The event, open to all who wish to attend, will be hosted by Ken Iwama, former CSI VP of Economic Development, Continuing Studies, and Government Relations, now Chancellor of Indiana University Northwest, on Wednesday, February 16, at 6pm, virtually through Zoom.

The Year of Willowbrook’s signature event for the month of February, the evening will Include a showing of the powerful and unsettling original broadcast of Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, remarks from Rivera and an open conversation among Rivera, Iwama, Bernard Carabello and Eric Goldberg about what Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace has meant for the Willowbrook community and for Rivera himself.  Carabello joins the panel as a former Willowbrook resident, disability rights activist, founder of the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, and recipient of an honorary doctorate of humane letters from CSI/CUNY, while Goldberg  is an IDD self-advocate, co-chair of the SIDDC’s Willowbrook Committee, and Willowbrook Legacy Committee member. The event will also feature an audience question and answer segment with Rivera.

Rivera responded to a call 50 years ago from doctors and social workers at the Willowbrook State School to report on the appalling conditions under which its residents lived. He and his crew captured footage in that clandestine visit to the School that became the explosive and honest exposé.

When Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace aired nationally, viewers were shocked to see residents living in squalor with little access to comfort or care, the result of years of budget cuts that had left the once-model institution overcrowded and understaffed. The public outcry led to a Consent Judgement in the New York courts that ordered the closure of Willowbrook and became a key precedent establishing that Willowbrook residents had a constitutional right to be protected from harm.

Registration for the event is open.  The event will be live online and captured on video which will be viewable on the Willowbrook YouTube channel.

For more information about The Year of Willowbrook visit their Website.


In addition to Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace event in February, 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:

  • 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.

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.