Accepting state apology with dignity

Gathered under the pavilion at Heritage Park– located on the old Cambridge State Hospital grounds– were members of Self-Advocates Minnesota (SAM) and People First. The July 25 ceremony held a reading of the 2010 state apology to persons committed to state institutions.

Members of the Chisago Lakes “People First” group led the attendees in a song during the July 25 ceremony at Heritage Park in Cambridge. Photos & story by Greg Hunt

But, more than that, the ceremony provided insight into how the lives of people with mental illness and developmental disabilities have improved after they moved into group homes and became working members of their communities. Organized and emceed by Maggie Treichel of Cambridge, the hour-long program left those in attendance with a feeling as bright as the clear summer sky that evening.

“Whereas, since the founding of state hospitals in 1866, tens of thousands of Minnesotans with mental illnesses and developmental and other disabilities have been removed from Minnesota communities and committed to live in state institutions, where many of these Minnesotans have died and been buried in unmarked graves or graves that bore only a number…”

Carol Benedict and Galen Smith recited the poem “Get Proud by Practicing” during the play portion of the advocacy program. Smith also read the official state apology to institutionalized citizens near the beginning of the program.

Opening the ceremony were life stories shared by advocates who experienced institutional settings.

“I was 19 years-old when I first went into Cambridge State Hospital. In the treatment centers we didn’t have the freedoms I have now. It was tough,” spoke Christine O’Connor. “We were locked in and couldn’t go anywhere on our own. I had to ask the staff if I could use the bathroom sometimes.

“Now I live in a group home with three other roommates and have the power of freedom to do things I want to do. We switch off with chores to take care of our house. I just love my life because I’m more independent. Sometime in my life, I would like to live all out my own. I have recently started working in our center’s thrift store. I am gaining more confidence in learning how to deal with people, customers and learning to be a cashier. I really want to work on getting a job out on my own and work with kids with disabilities. I want to become our People First group’s representative to SAM to help advocates in Minnesota and continue to improve my life by making better choices.”

WHEREAS, some residents of these state institutions were forced to labor without compensation; and WHEREAS, some residents of these state institutions were subjected to medical experiments and procedures without their consent…”

Clarence, a big Vikings football fan, spent 14 years in a state institution but now lives in Circle Pines “on my own.”

Dorothy Anderson, born and raised in institutions until she was 29, was scared to leave the state hospital “because that was all I knew. It was cold in the Faribault dorm that I shared with many other children. We all have come a long ways since living in a state hospital; we all have come a long ways since those days, understanding that people with disabilities are people first….Through my People First group, I’ve learned to be an advocate for myself and others. I enjoy traveling and seeing the country.…I am glad that people who lived and died in state hospitals can be remembered by their name and not a number. We are more than a number; we are people first!”

WHEREAS, thousands of children grew up in these state institutions learning none of the comforts, joys, and cultural norms that are learned in family life…”

The People First group than shared a song synchronized with sign language. “We are people first…we will stand up for our rights” they sang. Galen Smith followed with the official reading of the state apology signed by the Minnesota House of Representatives on May 15, 2010.

“WHEREAS, these fellow Minnesotans were portrayed by some as subhuman organisms, as deviant individuals to be feared by society, and as eternal children unaccountable for their behavior and incapable of speaking for themselves or shaping their own lives, which greatly diminished their fellow citizens’ ability and willingness to accept them for their own unique qualities…”

The ceremony ended on a high note with a presentation of “One Night in Spring,” a short play written by Wilbur Neushwander-Fink. Set in the “Human Rights Cafe,” the play centered on a budding relationship between actors Brian and Tori which was intermittently interrupted by voices from the fringe not allowing their love to grow. “I had no voice at all…We were locked behind the door,” spoke Brian.

But the scene at the Human Rights Cafe grew warmer when Tick Ticker (played by Nathan Miller channeling his inner Elvis) sang “Love me Tender.” Then Carol Benedict and Smith recited a poem: “You are the one who can make you proud. You get proud by practicing,” read Benedict. The entire cast then finished the play with a group dance and a bow.

Nathan Miller (aka Tick Ticker, left) sang “Love me Tender” during the “One Night in Spring” play about acceptance at the end of Monday night’s ceremony.

“WHEREAS, institutional care for persons with developmental disabilities has been scientifically demonstrated to be detrimental to people’s basic development, including social development, development of self-determination, and the development of the basic skills of daily living…”

At the end of the evening, a visitor was standing next to the table which held a numbered grave marker which was replaced by the deceased Cambridge State Hospital resident’s name a few years ago. Next to it was the plaque reading “Remembering With Dignity.”

Rick Cardenas of SAM explained how through appropriations some 6,500 institution grave markers around the state have been changed from just a number designation to ones bearing the deceased’s name.

“But there’s another 6,500 or so to go. We still have to start changing grave markers at Rochester, Faribault and Fergus Falls,” said Cardenas.

The “Remembering With Dignity” plaque is a little more dignified than the numbered grave markers used at the Cambridge State Hospital cemetery.

BE IT RESOLVED by the Legislature of the State of Minnesota on behalf of the citizens of the state that the state apologize publicly to all persons with mental illness and developmental and other disabilities who have been wrongfully committed to state institutions, acknowledging that it regrets this history of institutionalization of persons with those disabilities, and that it commits itself in their memory to move steadfastly to help Minnesotans with those disabilities who in the future turn to the state for services to receive them in the least restrictive manner.”