On the heels of that outrage came news on Tuesday that not only was Kentucky committed to keeping open its troubled Oakwood institution, despite repeated citations for abuse of residents (Ragged Edge news items here and here and here) -- but that it was going to spend "up to $1 million a month" to do so -- at least for the next several months. ( More about that here.)
Not to be left behind by the re-institutionalization bandwagon, tomorrow VA Gov. Mark Warner plans to unveil a new budget that includes "$290 million to fully replace two aging psychiatric hospitals and two institutions that house people with intellectual disabilities." (Read story about that.)
The San Francisco Business Journal has this telling paragraph:
... the Service Employees International Union has provided the political juice. The facility has nearly 1,600 full-time-equivalent employees, and 1,357 -- 85 percent of them -- are affiliated with SEIU, one of the city's biggest political players. The union denies that its motive is protecting jobs, but says the city can find the money to both rebuild Laguna Honda and improve care in the community.
Sources close to the Oakwood circus lay the blame very nearly at the same spot.
Oakwood is the largest employer in the small Kentucky town of Somerset. Over a thousand folks have jobs at Oakwood. And they like those jobs. They pay well, and they want to keep them. The state wants them to keep them, too. Good employment for a small Kentucky town.
There are only about 300 residents, so this translates to close to 4 staffers per resident.
If I had a household staff of 4, my home would be on the cover of Architectural Digest. Not to mention that my clothes would be ironed (and the missing buttons sewn back on!), my gardens the envy of BHG readers, my parties constant and to-die-for. Sorta makes you wonder what all those staff are doing at that institution.
My source tells me that very few folks other than the state's Protection and Advocacy agency are calling for the closure of Oakwood. There are hardly any disability rights groups in Kentucky. There are some parent organizations, and frankly, it seems, they get money from the state themselves and don't want to jeopardize it by saying anything. And then, a lot of the folks in those groups are "professionals" -- as in "mental health professionals," you know -- and they work for the state. So their lips are sealed, even if they believe in their hearts that Oakwood should be closed. Which maybe they don't. I don't know, since they don't talk about it.
I believe that many of the Oakwood employees, like the Laguna Honda employees (and no doubt the Virginia institution employees) are members of SEIU. SEIU is a big national union.
Unions have certainly been known to fight for what are reactionary social practices in order to protect jobs, but in most cases they've lost. While I would generally like to be supportive of the labor movement, these people pressing to keep institutions open so they can have jobs are taking a position I simply cannot stomach. I know that with SEIU that disability activists have worked with them, and so I know that SEIU can "talk the talk and walk the walk" -- except they don't. (Ragged Edge has run stories on SEIU in the past -- here and here.) Or they do so selectively. Very selectively. They want it both ways -- jobs in "the community" and jobs in institutions, and most people see nothing wrong with that. Which is why stuff doesn't change.
The big problem, as with most stuff when it comes to disability, seems to me, is lack of public outrage. The public by and large doesn't really care whether institutions exist or not. They don't know the indignity -- hell, the horror (let's be exact here ) -- of institutional life. They seem not to believe it when it's told to them, or they figure that the real horror is just the disability and that no life is ever going to be good for Those People, so what difference does it make whether they are in an institution or a group home (which also abuses them -- see my diary entry on that )
The SF Business Journal article gives a good example of this kind of thinking, in a way. Reporter Chris Rauber's coverage begins with the story of Gerald Scott:
Gerald Scott has been a resident at Laguna Honda Hospital for roughly half his life, ever since he was jumped and severely beaten as a young man 25 years ago. Now he hopes to leave.
Scott's attorneys say he's significantly disabled, with both cognitive and physical impairments, but would be capable of living in an apartment as long as he had an attendant to help with things like cooking, managing money and getting to doctor's appointments. ...
Note that Scott is a "patient" -- but also credit Rauber for referring to the man in subsequent references by his last name, which is standard for news journalism, rather than calling him by his first name only, as do so many news stories when reporting about disabled people. (This is a very small point and it doesn't really belong in this blog entry, but it's such a telling thing that I wanted to alert you to it as you watch and read the news.)
But then here comes the next sentence from Rauber:
Scott has had a sad life, and there's not much Laguna Honda or any other institution could have done to deal with much of his pain since Friday, June 13, 1980, when he was assaulted on a Tenderloin street, on the way to pick up his daughter.
There you have it: the pain of the disability is so great as to make other issues -- such as where and under what conditions one lives -- simply pale into insignificance. You'll see this all the time, too, in coverage of disabled people if you watch for it.
For most people, the idea of Those People living in their own homes with things under their own control is simply too much to even fathom.Granted, not every person with a severe disability also has the cognitive and emotional ability to control their lives but you can bet your sweet patootie that far more of them can do it than are believed to be able to do it. And almost none of them (we're speaking statistically here) get that chance. That is to say the powers of society are arrayed against that. Including the SEIU, which could be the solution, if they put on a big national drive themselves to close the institutions where they worked and pressed for in-home services, where they could work as well.