1972 February 2

Willowbrook Hospital Abuses of Mentally Disabled Children Exposed


Geraldo Rivera, at the time an unknown local broadcast journalist, obtained a key to the New York Willowbrook State School for the mentally disabled on Staten Island, New York. His report on the appalling conditions, with videotape footage, was broadcast on this day on WABC’s Eyewitness News in New York City. The shocking video showed patients naked or half-naked, lying in their own feces, and otherwise clearly neglected. The exposé touched off a major scandal and a lawsuit on behalf of the patients. The Willowbrook State School was an accredited institution, and the report revealed a covert pattern of tolerating such treatment by the medical profession and state officials.

The settlement of the case took over a decade but resulted in a program of community placements for the patients. The story also catapulted Rivera into a national career as a celebrity journalist.

Congress passed the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. The ADA served as the model for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which was signed on March 30, 2007. The U.S. Senate has still not ratified the Convention, however, because of conservative opposition. See December 5, 2012 for a Senate vote on ratification that failed.

Learn more about the long struggle over the Willowbrook case: David Rothman and Shelia Rothman, The Willowbrook Wars (1984)

Learn more about the history of the rights of institutionalized persons: https://www.aclu.org/organization-news-and-highlights/aclu-history-mental-institutions

Read:  Kim Nielsen, A Disability History of the United States (2012)

Learn about the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons (CRIPA): http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/spl/cripastat.php

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