Thursday, February 10, 2011

The last of 3,000

Recently a reader of the blog sent me a link to pictures from the abandoned Broadview Developmental Center. What this reader didn't know is that I actually have a connection to the abandoned hospital. Having spent a few years living away from Northeast Ohio, I returned. The first job I got when I moved back was as an assistant house manager for a group home serving people with profound developmental disabilities. The twelve residents who lived in this house were among the last people moved out of Broadview Developmental Center.

I never actually toured the abandoned center. The center had already been closed down for two years--the program I had worked in had been existence for two. Most of the staff remember driving the twelve residences from Broadview Developmental Center to their new home. As they described it, these 12 were literally from the last 25 people who had not been placed in a new home.

I've not thought of Maple House for years. It was a hard job. I was young and inexperienced--and yet really had the impression that I knew what I was doing. Perhaps not the best combination. Perhaps it was a very good combination. The people that I worked with had little or no language skills. Those who were able to talk were very limited. One resident was able to repeat most of the things she heard (a condition called echolalia). Some residents were able to point at things that they might like. Another, who I remember well, relied upon a sole skill at communicating: she would pinch people incredibly hard to signal that there was something she needed. Ouch.

For the most part, the residents were lost to the fog of their minds. I would sit for hours watching the residents. In my eager youthful inexperience I would sit and watch for hours hoping that I would be able to find some sort of meaning in their repetitive movements of mindless stares. I hoped that I could somehow crack the code of their language and bring them back to life.

For most, my efforts were futile. One resident and I traveled a great distance one icy winter day to a well known clinic for people with developmental disabilities. I was trying to find a way to help her: she spent her days engaged in repetitive self-mutilating behavior. The doctors told me that this is just the way it was and the best we could do is medicate the individual so she didn't have enough energy to hurt herself so much. I still feel like I failed her: there had to be some way we could have listened to her closely, heard what she wanted, and restored a bit of dignity and humanity back to her life.

I wonder sometimes if a group home was really any better than an institution. Their environment looked much better: rather than a cold sterile hospital environment they lived in a beautiful home situated on a beautiful tree-lined street in a beautiful suburban town. There were goals for each resident to help them to be as independent as possible, quarterly meetings to discuss their progress, and social programming.

On a deep pessimistic level, I sometimes feel that I was just engaged in a piece of community theater. We had a pretty set, lots of great props, had a great story line.... but behind it all, the props were just cardboard, the story line was empty, and nothing was really accomplished. It felt like we moved these people from a ugly institutional warehouse to a pretty suburban one that was designed to make us all (the non-disabled) feel better.

On more optimistic level I know that I did a lot. I would tirelessly bring in other people to consult on issues facing residents. I discovered that there were people who taught sexuality to those with developmental disabilities: I worked hard to bring those professionals in to help us find ways to restore that part of humanity to the residents (you'd be amazed, despite the evidence to the contrary, how many people insisted that the residents weren't interested in this). I devoted a significant amount of my time to learning about adaptive communication equipment and trying to find the funds to purchase that equipment to help some of the residents communicate their needs to the outside world (you'd be amazed at how many thought this was a waste of money).

The most honest assessment is that I accomplished little. There were no "Awakenings" moments for the residents. There lives were much  more comfortable, that was sure. They were afforded a bit more dignity and respect. Still, much of what we did was group home theater. There was no realistic expectation that any of the people would be living independently. Their disabilities were too profound. Their brains were too damaged by genetic defect, birth trauma, or head trauma sustained from childhood accidents.

Just because these people are damaged people does not mean we don't have to offer them dignity and respect. The hurt, lost, and forgotten of the large state institutions have taught us that lesson in a painful way. Many people who were different got swallowed up by these large institutions who could have functioned very well in an independent setting (people with epilepsy, for example, found their way to these institutions).

But what of the people who cannot be independent? What of the people who cannot ever communicate, feed themselves, or dress themselves? I think it is only right that we treat them with as much dignity and respect. I think offering them loving-kindness is the moral thing to do.

There is something much bigger here to be learned. In looking at these pictures of Broadview Developmental Center, Foresthaven Developmental Center, modern day asylums around the world, and abandoned asylums in the United States, I've learned something unexpected. In restoring humanity to those who are hurt, lost, and forgotten, what I really was doing was finding my own humanity. I hope in looking at these images you can find part of your own humanity being restored too.

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