'Willowbrook Mile' a place to learn from an ugly history, build progress

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Tuesday, September 20, 2022
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50 years ago, the world got a glimpse inside the walls of an institution that was called a school. It was anything but that. Sonia Rincon has more.

WILLOWBROOK, Staten Island (WABC) -- The new Willowbrook Mile on the College of Staten Island campus is a place to learn from an ugly history and to build on the progress.

Fifty years ago, the world got a glimpse inside the walls of an institution that was called a school.

It was anything but that.

Children and adults with disabilities were warehoused without the education or care they needed and living in horrific conditions. Some of the doctors there realized what they were seeing needed to be exposed on television.

In 1972, Geraldo Rivera, reporting for Eyewitness News, had gotten word of how bad it was. But after he saw and heard -- and described it in a heartbreaking report -- both he and the public would understand that so much was horribly wrong and had to change.

"Of course I had no idea that 50 years later, 35 years after the closing of this terrible institution, we'd be gathered here celebrating the progress," Rivera said. "The world has changed for the developmentally disabled. They have to come out of the shadows. Their lives, their rights, their futures are now part of all of our lives."

Now, 35 years to the day it closed, where the Willowbrook Mile once was is an educational tool for the students at the college of Staten Island and the public. Both are a grim reminder that human beings with developmental disabilities once suffered these indignities.

"And how to make sure that things like this never happen again, so there's no more institutionalism for people with disabilities," said Nora Santiago, with the Willowbrook Legacy Committee. "We want people to live in group homes where they can be part of society."

There are 12 stations along the trail, which is actually about two miles, each with a theme representing a milestone and filled with information. For those who have been making the change happen, there is hope.

"The fact that folks with disabilities are part of everyday life as they, again, always should have been, it's just a welcoming and wonderful thing to experience," said Joseph Pancari, of CP Unlimited.

On Saturday, Rivera and at least one former resident who has been advocating for change cut a ribbon, welcoming visitors to the outdoor memorial, curated by a committee dedicated to helping understand that history and how it can serve the future.

"Keep fighting," said Eric Goldberg, of the Willowbrook Legacy Committee. "If you keep fighting, if you get enough people, we'll get better funding and history won't repeat itself."

Rivera and Channel 7's activism reporting on Willowbrook led to more reporting and to activism, lawsuits and eventually legislation, including the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

RELATED | Revisiting Willowbrook 50 years later with Geraldo Rivera

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