Thursday, August 29, 2013
Over the past summer, I’ve been working on a fascinating project for the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, which is working with the Twin Cities Public Television station to develop a “Disability Justice Resource Center” website for lawyers and law students working on disability rights issues. The Minnesota Governor’s Council itself already has an extremely robust website, with a wealth of resources for anyone interested in the history and current state of the disability rights movement. Their two-part “Parallels in Time” presentation of the history of social attitudes toward people with disabilities and the rise of the disability rights movement starts from 1500 B.C., and is populated with fascinating pictures and videos. The Minnesota Governor’s Council developed the “Partners in Policymaking ®” advocacy training program for people with disabilities and their family members over 25 years ago; since then it has been exported to over 35 states and a number of other countries. (I participated in it in Indiana while I was teaching at Notre Dame.) Their website has a number of fine (and free) on-line courses on disability advocacy, covering the history of the disability rights movement, independent living issues, education, and employment.
I kept thinking about this “Disability Justice Resource Center” project during yesterday’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Much of the coverage of the events highlighted and analyzed how things have (or haven’t) changed for African Americans in the intervening 50 years. The same sort of reflection is merited for people with disabilities, who continue to struggle to overcome both the challenges raised by their disabilities, and the challenges raised by social attitudes toward people with disabilities.
And these challenges are NOT limited to the subtle sorts of ADA challenges and biases alleged in many of the legal cases that tend to get the most media attention. Case in point: the source of the funding for this particular project. In July 2009, three plaintiffs sued the State of Minnesota for its treatment of people with developmental disabilities at a facility in Cambridge, Minnesota. In December 2011, Federal District Court Judge Donovan Frank approved a settlement agreement that awarded the plaintiffs $2.9 million, shut down the treatment program, and required the State to “immediate and permanently discontinue the use of mechanical restraint (including metal law enforcement-type handcuffs and leg hobbles, cable tie cuffs, PlasticCuffs, FlexiCuffs, soft cuffs, posey cuffs, and any other mechanical means to restrain), manual restraint, prone restraint, chemical restraint, seclusion, and the use of painful techniques to induce changes in behavior through punishment of residents with developmental disabilities. Medical restraint, and psychotropic and/or neuroleptic medications shall not be administered to residents for punishment, in lieu of adequate and appropriate habilitation, skills training and behavior supports plans, for the convenience of staff and/or as a form of behavior modification.” After the settlement agreement funds were distributed to class members, Judge Frank ordered a cy pres fund be established for this project -- a public education campaign to break stereotypes about people with developmental disabilities.
A newspaper article about this settlement began as follows:
On Halloween night 1949, Minnesota Gov. Luther Youngdahl stood aside a bonfire outside Anoka State Hospital and, with fanfare, burned 359 straitjackets and hundreds of other restraints he said were sinister relics of a more barbarous time.
“By this action we say that we have liberated ourselves from witchcraft – that in taking off mechanical restraints from the patients, we are taking off intellectual restraint from ourselves,” the governor said.
Apparently, we forgot.
The more time I spend on this project, the more concerned I become that "we" are forgetting some of the most vulnerable among us.