As part of the 2022 Year of Willowbrook at the College of Staten Island, the Willowbrook Legacy Project will present a rebroadcast of the 2021 Willowbrook Annual Lecture entitled, “Avoiding the Next Willowbrook: Lessons Learned from Parents’ Activism.” This signature event for the month of March, which will feature an introduction of the lecture, a reshowing of the recorded program, and a brief Q&A, is available to all on Zoom.

 “Avoiding the Next Willowbrook” featured parents of former Willowbrook residents gathering to talk about their activism, which led to the creation of community-based care for their children outside Willowbrook’s institutional setting. They shared powerful stories of the Willowbrook conditions that led them to call for its closure, and the ongoing challenges of ensuring that their children would be able to live with dignity.

In this often funny and sometimes heartbreaking conversation, these parents who still advocate for their children today, share their experiences and help model ways to respond to the current system.

The Willowbrook parent advocates were interviewed by Diane Buglioli (Office for People with Developmental Disabilities/OPWDD, community advocate, and co-founder of A Very Special Place, Inc.). They were:

Willie Mae Goodman

Ann Nehrbauer

Diana McCourt

Malachy McCourt

Ida Rios

Jerome Isaacs

Mary Sullivan

Following the group interview are commentaries from parent-advocates Meri Krassner, Kathleen Nowak, and Judy O’Rourke, self-advocate Eric Goldberg, and special guests Dr. Bill Bronston and Dr. Michael Wilkins.

Willowbrook Legacy Project Co-Chair Dr. Catherine Lavender (Department of History, CSI/CUNY) will host the March 8 event, and members of the Willowbrook Legacy Project Committee, Buglioli and Dr. David Goode (Professor Emeritus in Sociology at CSI/CUNY), will be answering audience questions via Zoom’s Q&A function throughout the program.

Participation in this event will provide preparation for a number of forthcoming Year of Willowbrook events in the coming months, including:

The 2022 Annual Willowbrook Memorial Lecture, Beyond Willowbrook, featuring Ronnie Cohn, scheduled for April 6, and a Parents’ Summit in November 2022

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.

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.