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Caption: A clip of an interview with Bernard Carabello from Geraldo Rivera’s exposé, “The Last Great Disgrace”
As institutions became more widespread, more parents sent their children with intellectual and developmental disabilities away, hoping they would be rehabilitated and come home. Many of them never did. New York built 5 institutions for disabled people, starting in 1855 with a state school in Syracuse, followed by schools in Rome, Newark, and Letchworth Village. The city also operated an “Idiot School” or “Asylum” on Randall’s Island.
Conditions for residents of these institutions were often poor and at times abusive. They did not improve for many years, despite the attention in the press and advocacy of parents. Some children at Willowbrook were misdiagnosed as “mentally retarded,” like a man who was labeled Deaf but never had his hearing tested.[^1] Bernard Carabello had cerebral palsy, which affected his speech and movements. Bernard was misdiagnosed as intellectually disabled when he was three years old, and his mother, who was raising six children, was convinced to send him to live at Willowbrook.[^2] The school was underfunded to the point that residents’ basic needs were not met, much less their need for an education.
Conditions at Willowbrook continued to degrade after Kennedy’s visit in 1965, even as the population decreased to 5,300 residents. Many parents regularly visited their children at Willowbrook but were not aware of the true conditions of Willowbrook State School.1 Bernard Carabello lived at Willowbrook from 1953-1972. Dr. Michael Wilkins, a doctor there, recognized that he was not intellectually disabled, although he had been categorized that way by the school. Wilkins used a guardianship law to get the 21-year old released.
Because of their advocacy, the school announced that they would fire Wilkins and another social worker who had cooperated with him. Wilkins and a social worker got in touch with a reporter, Geraldo Rivera, who agreed to cover the story. They helped him sneak into Willowbrook buildings unannounced, record the real living conditions and lack of education there, and interview Carabello. Rivera also visited Letchworth Village and edited a half-hour program about state institutions in New York and in California. When his coverage gained national attention, it advanced a movement for deinstitutionalizing people—moving residents out of large facilities and into smaller homes where they can live and work in their community.
United Cerebral Palsy took over part of Willowbrook to improve care for children with Bernard’s type of disability.1 They also offered Bernard a job in their “sheltered workshop,” an invention of earlier charities that offered disabled people jobs but paid them far less than minimum wage.2 Several months later, Bernard decided to quit, unhappy with earning only 20 cents an hour on work that wasn’t interesting to him.3 In 1980, he was appointed by Governor Carey to be the Advocate for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, a role he served in for 37 years. He later went on to create the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State (SANYS) and is still a public figure today.
Two months after the exposé, the parents of children at Willowbrook filed a lawsuit. The resulting Willowbrook Consent Decree in 1975 required that care be improved at the facility and that residential facilities have a maximum of 250 residents.4 The state made a commitment to close Willowbrook and move the residents into community based housing, but that process took 15 more years. The last Willowbrook resident moved out in 1987. The College of Staten Island has been located on the former grounds of Willowbrook since 1993.
[^]1: “A Misdiagnosed Deaf Man’s Ordeal,” The New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/11/nyregion/a-misdiagnosed-deaf-man-s-ordeal.html.
[^]2: “Bernard Carabello.” https://nysilc.org/inductees/32-2022/234-bernard-carabello, Accessed July 29, 2023.
Peter Kihss, “Cerebral Palsy Unit Praised by State Aide.” The New York Times, September 30, 1977, https://www.nytimes.com/1977/09/30/archives/cerebral-palsy-unit-praised-by-state-aide.html. ↩︎ ↩︎
Cheryl Bates-Harris, “Segregated and Exploited: The Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work.” Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation 36, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 39–64. ↩︎
Jean Crafton, “Palsy Victim Yearns to Join the World,” *Daily News,*May 13, 1973. ↩︎
New York State Association For Retarded Children and Parisi, et al., vs. Carey et al. 72 Civ. 356, 72 Civ. 357. (United States District Court, E.D. New York), 1975. https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/393/715/1452641/, Accessed July 28, 2023. ↩︎
Date: Feb 2, 1972
Creator: Geraldo Rivera
Source: Geraldo Rivera
Copyright: Under copyright.
How to cite: “Bernard Carabello” in New York City Civil Rights History Project, Accessed: [Month Day, Year], https://nyccivilrightshistory.org/gallery/bernard-carabello."
- What were conditions like for residents of Willowbrook State School?
- Some of the coverage about Bernard focused on his IQ and the narrative that he didn’t belong at Willowbrook. How does this contrast with how Geraldo describes Bernard’s understanding of the world? How would you revise Geraldo’s remarks if you were trying to make the same points today?