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Your Child and Willowbrook
Caption: This brochure was produced by the Willowbrook State School to explain the institution to parents and caregivers of disabled children.Read plain text of document
In the late 1800s through the early 1900s, educators and social reformers created institutions for people they called “idiots,” “feeble minded,” or later, “mentally retarded.”1 They said that these facilities could train children and return them to society as productive citizens, and relieve the few overcrowded and understaffed “special classes” in city schools. State institutions like Letchworth Village were built to take on the responsibility of educating children outside of New York City.
Over time, and with less funding and greater demand, institutions opened throughout the country. New York State had the highest concentration of these institutions. In October 1947, Willowbrook State School opened as the largest state institution of its kind in the United States. It was run by the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.
The parents of children who were sent to institutions were often told by their physicians that an institution was the best place for their child. Families with greater financial means could choose to care for their disabled children at home rather than send them to an institution.
James W. Trent, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Steven Noll, “Institutions for People with Disabilities in North America,” in The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, ed. Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen, Oxford Handbooks (2018; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018), accessed April 21, 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190234959.013.19. Thanks to Francine Almash for the citation. ↩︎
Date: October, 1947
Creator: The ARC Archives
Source: The ARC Archives
Copyright: The ARC, New York
How to cite: “Your Child and Willowbrook,” in New York City Civil Rights History Project, Accessed: [Month Day, Year], https://nyccivilrightshistory.org/topics/black-latina-women/gouverneur-parents-association/your-child-and-willowbrook.
- What impression does the brochure give you of Willowbrook?
- What questions would you want to ask to understand what life was like at Willowbrook? What questions would you ask if you were considering whether Willowbrook would be a good place for a person you love?