The College of Staten Island continued its Year of Willowbrook programming with an emotionally charged event commemorating the 50th anniversary of Geraldo Rivera’s 1972 exposé on the Willowbrook State School, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace. Former CSI Vice President for the Division of Economic Development, Continuing Studies, and Government Relations, and current Chancellor of Indiana University Northwest Ken Iwama returned to moderate the event. Iwama was joined by journalist Geraldo Rivera, former Willowbrook State School resident and self-advocate Bernard Carabello, and Willowbrook Legacy Committee member and self-advocate Eric Goldberg, guiding attendees through a screening of the exposé and an interview segment with the panelists.
After opening words of introduction from CSI’s Willowbrook Legacy Committee co-chair Nora Santiago, the program opened with Iwama informing the collection of more than 300 virtual attendees of the history of the Willowbrook State School, and of Rivera’s unannounced visit, facilitated by concerned staff, that would later lead to the exposé. Willowbrook: The Last Disgrace prompted a national outcry for justice and deinstitutionalization for the developmentally disabled and effected a significant change in public support for Willowbrook’s closure. After the exposé screening, Rivera was asked to share his thoughts; he fought back tears recalling the vivid scenes that he had witnessed while filming the footage.
“It has been decades since I’ve watched it,” Rivera told the attendees. “It’s fascinating to think how it is half a century ago, yet it feels so current. It feels so immediate. The dangers of negligence are so vivid. But the humanity is the same. The solution is the same. What developmentally disabled people need is the same thing able-bodied people need. They need to have their human potential realized. They have to be able to be in a situation where they can be as much as they can possibly be.”
Rivera’s opening remarks set the course for a stirring program that featured reflections from Carabello, 50 years after being interviewed by a young Rivera in the exposé. The two have remained fast friends ever since. “We have been friends for over 50 years,” Carabello stated. “We have a great relationship.” Rivera called Carabello “my brother, absolutely my brother.”
Carabello and Rivera answered questions from both Iwama and Goldberg, speaking to their experiences during and since the filming of the exposé. In a powerful segment, Goldberg asked Rivera about the most difficult images he recalled from filming the exposé, at which point an emotional Rivera recollected an undressed child calling for help underneath a sink in a Willowbrook bathroom, with no one there to help. The words were followed by a long pause.
“The horror was allowed to fester and it became an awful, awful place,” Rivera recalled. “The words can say what it looked like, what it sounded like but how can I tell you how it smelled? I swear to God, that is my nightmare, 50 years later.”
Carabello added later, “when you did your story, they were shocked. Day after day, I was in a straitjacket, they sedated me, they beat me…but now I get to help people, I get to know all kinds of people.” His time in Willowbrook, Carabello said, “was a great education” that prepared him for his lengthy career as an advocate for persons with myriad needs. After his time at Willowbrook, Carabello went on to found the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State (SANYS), a highly effective nonprofit led by and for persons with developmental disabilities.
Audience members shared their appreciation and made clear the impact of both Rivera’s and Carabello’s advocacy on the lives of the Willowbrook community and on later families who were able to avoid institutionalization for their children with special needs. Audience questions, moderated by Willowbrook Legacy Committee co-chair Professor Catherine Lavender, led the panel to discuss topics such as the power of parent and media advocacy, Rivera’s strategy for documentary filmmaking and investigative journalism, and the responsibility to continue to tell the Willowbrook story, especially to elected officials and gatekeepers who determine funding for advanced services for the developmentally disabled as well as for the mentally ill. Attendees and panelists emphasized the urgency of ensuring that nothing like the Willowbrook story could ever happen again.
The full video of the program is available on the Willowbrook YouTube Channel.
CSI’s Year of Willowbrook will continue with many more events throughout the year, including a marquee event each month leading to the opening of the Willowbrook Mile, a ten-station interpretive trail at the former Willowbrook State School site, in September. In March, an encore presentation of last year’s Willowbrook Lecture, Avoiding the Next Willowbrook: Lessons Learned from Parents’ Activism, will be held on Tuesday, March 8, at 6:00pm. In this lively panel discussion led by Diane Buglioli, Co-chair of the Staten Island Developmental Disabilities Council’s Willowbrook Properties Committee, and co-founder and Deputy Executive Director of A Very Special Place, parents whose activism led to the closure of the Willowbrook State School share their experiences and what they have learned in their continuing fight for their children’s survival and for disability equity. Registration for the event is going on now. In April, the 2022 Willowbrook Memorial Lecture will take place, scheduled for Wednesday, April 6, at 6:00pm. Beyond Willowbrook will feature several panelists who will discuss the events that occurred during and after the closing of Willowbrook, and will feature Ronnie Cohn, New York State’s ARC Evaluator for the Willowbrook Class (registration coming soon).
For more information on the Year of Willowbrook, visit their Website.
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