Response to NYT Article on Re-institutionalization of People with Intellectual Disabilities

Guest Blogger: Barb Trader

The New York Times should be ashamed to have published an op/ed piece calling for the re-institutionalization of people with intellectual disabilities. Institutionalization was discredited as a method of treatment decades ago, and is as damaging today as it was in the past. Rather than provide essential treatment and supports, the nation’s institutions for people with developmental disabilities were essentially prisons in which “patients” were incarcerated and forgotten. These facilities caused extraordinary harm to generations of our most vulnerable citizens, and it’s no coincidence that many of these institutions were converted to prisons after deinstitutionalization.

The Times piece was correct in pointing out that many communities’ treatment systems haven’t lived up to expectations. However, this isn’t because the model is flawed; it’s because most states have not been willing to make a good faith commitment to building effective community-based systems. Budget shortfalls in state upon state have decimated community care systems. Ironically, the alternative—institutional care—is up to 5 times more expensive.

If you want proof that community care is the best option for people with intellectual disabilities and their families, you need only look to New Hampshire, which has built one of the most comprehensive and successful community systems in the nation. Not only are people treated effectively and with dignity, it is their families and other loved ones who maintain primary responsibility for their care, not the State. New Hampshire’s system is also one of the nation’s most cost-effective, proving that, not only is community-based care the best treatment option, but it is also the least costly way to provide services.

Rather than return to the dark ages of disability care, we should be working to assure that every person with an intellectual disability has access to the best care in a community setting. We must educate lawmakers and policymakers on the extraordinary benefits provided by community-based care, and insist that they truly commit to funding and supporting community-based services. If they do, it won’t only be people with intellectual disabilities and their families who benefit—the community itself will profit from the cost savings.

The unspoken assumption behind institutionalized care is that people with intellectual disabilities have nothing to offer society, and that it’s fine to shut them away. This is a dangerous outlook that also damages society as a whole. People with intellectual disabilities have as much to offer as anyone else. They are teachers, and artists, and craftspeople, and many other things. When we undervalue people with intellectual disabilities, we hurt ourselves as well.

Barb Trader
TASH Executive Director