Graphic: The Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement

William Bronston

Audio transcript: On first impressions as a ward physician entering Willowbrook State School in 1970
Date: November 9, 2001
Interviewer: Kathy Cowan

Note: Transcripts have been lightly edited; therefore there may be slight discrepancies with audio clips.

Just for a moment, could we go back to that first day when doctors walked you around, before you had a clue? What were your impressions?

Well, I had never seen anything like it before. I had never seen anything like it before. I just stood there and tears welled up in me. I'd never seen such squalor and excrement smell. The place was all concrete, with no furniture, nothing to soften the sound. There were two rooms; there was a day room in each ward that was a big terrazzo-floored place with these wooden chairs and benches that were too heavy to lift. There were also some fiberglass chairs but those things would fly—people would throw them around. It was absolutely like something out of Dante's Inferno. These were wretched "shades" in every form of disrepair, misery, withdrawal, and inhuman state imaginable. At first you don't get the full magnitude of it. It takes you day after day to fathom this "hell."

What I was presented with that first day was shocking. I said to them, "How do I find out who these people are? Where are the sign-off notes? Did my predecessor leave exit notes of who each case was?" "Well, no." I didn't even know who the hell was the doctor that preceded me. So I started trying to figure out, how in the world am I going to find out who these people are that I'm responsible for? What's wrong with them, and where they're going? The fact of the matter was, it didn't matter. It didn't matter who they were, because they weren't going anywhere. They were just being held there as "hostages" in order for the state to collect "public ransom" [federal Title 19 reimbursements] in order to keep them there. It was a self-fulfilling economic nightmare, which I found out little by little as I went along. And the violence—. The doctor had to daily review any problems that arose on the ward, and every week renew all these massive tranquilizing drug orders.

End of transcript

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