Closing the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled is good for people with developmental disabilities, communities and taxpayers.
A budget hat trick
As the members of the Joint Finance Committee slice away at Governor Jim Doyle’s budget bill, my hope is that the elimination of the Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled is one line that remains intact. It is that rare initiative that saves taxpayers money, benefits people in need and benefits the rest of the people in the state, too.
More than 30 years ago, a furniture storeowner from Prairie du Chien came to the state government with a request and an offer of help. Donald Knapp’s simple request was for the state to provide support that would enable his daughter Lori to return home. At the time, Lori was living in the state institution in Chippewa Falls then named the Northern Wisconsin Colony and Training School. In return, Mr. Knapp offered to create a home for other children who were living at the “Colonies” because of a lack of services in their communities.
The state accepted Knapp’s offer. In August 1972, Lori Knapp and seven other children returned home, initiating a reform in the way Wisconsin provides support to its children and adults with disabilities. Governor Doyle’s budget should be seen as a continuation of that reform since it includes the long overdue proposal to end the long-term placement of people with disabilities at Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled.
Northern Wisconsin Center opened at the end of the 19th century. Back then there was no government support available for children and adults with learning difficulties or other disabilities. Our schools did not provide an education to children who had “mental retardation.” Our health care professionals were leading a tragic eugenics movement that intended, in the words of Northern Center’s first superintendent, “to purge society and obstruct the increase of feeblemindedness.” This misguided policy resulted in the sterilization of almost 1,900 “inmates” at the Chippewa Falls institution between 1913 and 1963.
We have come a long way since then. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of parents such as Donald and Betty Knapp and so many others, a strong parent advocacy effort in the 1960s and early 1970s led to legislation and funding for education and services for people with disabilities. In 1973, the Legislature appropriated funds to enable Wisconsin counties to develop community services for the developmentally disabled. In 1974, a law was passed requiring and enabling, for the first time, all children to receive an education in our public schools.
The education and services those laws created have helped Wisconsin citizens to know children with disabilities as classmates and playmates, and adults with significant disabilities as co-workers, neighbors and friends. We have learned as a society that the need for medical support, or an inability to walk, or to speak does not reduce the ability to love and the desire to be part of a family, neighborhood, church and community.
We no longer admit new individuals for long-term care to the Northern, Central or Southern Wisconsin centers. Those who are admitted come in for short-term rehabilitation and treatment and then return home. In 1970, there were 1,389 people living at Northern Wisconsin Center. Today, fewer than 175 people live there, and it is well past time for those men and women to return to our communities.
Governor Doyle and members of the Legislature who support this initiative will come under fire for being “uncaring” or “trying to balance the budget on the backs of vulnerable citizens.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Our communities now care for people in their own homes. In addition to that care, people who live outside the institutions have the opportunity to participate in the richness, the variety, the vibrancy of life that characterizes the dream and reality of America for all of its citizens.
I have worked for 35 years in support of people with developmental disabilities in Wisconsin. As a supervisor and later the superintendent of Southern Wisconsin Center, as the assistant administrator of the state Division of Care and Treatment Facilities, administrator of the state Division of Community Services, and as the former executive director of The Arc Wisconsin, I have met thousands of people with disabilities in Wisconsin who once lived in institutions or were at risk of being admitted to one. In all those years, with all those individuals, I have yet to meet someone who had lived in an institution and wanted to return, or anyone outside an institution who wanted to be admitted.
Wisconsin has lagged behind other states in terms of ending the era of housing people with disabilities in large public institutions. Thirteen states, including our neighbors in Minnesota and Michigan, have brought this era to a close for taxpayers, citizens and people with disabilities. It is time for Wisconsin to do so as well.
April 30, 2003
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Gerry Born lives in Madison, works as an advocate in support of people with disabilities and is a member of the Survival Organization of Wisconsin Disability Groups.