Thank you for a moving and literate meditation, Ann. It won't be a consolation to know that "mental institutions" across the country at that time were no better than the Hiawatha Asylum. In East Tennessee, Lyons View asylum (aka Eastern State Mental Hospital) was the place well-to-do families sent elderly domestics or family members who were no longer useful or presentable. These days, to modern sensibilities each asylum story like the one you tell is presented as if it were some unique outrageous horror -- some ring of hell worse than anything else in the world -- but the truth is that all asylums of the time imprisoned pretty much the same evil. Again, no consolation, but important to remember.
But you asked the more important question: "Where do I [we] walk today?"
We continue to turn a blind eye to people like those very people who inhabited the Hiawatha Asylum and Lyons View -- people with mental illness, intellectual disabilities, people with a place on the autism spectrum -- all with characteristics that make them less acceptable in day-to-day society. We just don't store them all in one place these days.
Out of sight, out of mind is still a very effective tool for ignoring people who make us uncomfortable. In the late 20th and early 21st century we've just found a new way to do it -- we distribute and diffuse them, we pour these people into the sand, so that their needs (and resultant suffering) disperse into a larger society that is not paying attention. We closed the asylums and mental institutions in the '80s with the promise of community support systems that never got funded.
I could document this with stories of positive actions (and resulting reactions) going on in my town about homelessness and mental illness, or I could talk about my own daughter, a 17-year-old with intellectual disabilities whose biggest social liability is a speech impediment. I could tell you about the legal fights with YM & W CAs to get them to serve her in her disability. And, sad to say, I could tell you about how the youth of my liberal congregation systematically excluded her from its activities in ways that are fundamentally just as evil as anything ever done inside the confines of an old-fashioned asylum.
But if you look around you can find those stories much closer to home -- which is, I guess, the answer to your question. Look around, but go granular. Examine the people with disabilities in your community who are not being served or -- better said -- are not being included and enabled. That's where "all of those whose lives are hidden, not made visible, covered by those in power who don’t want to know" are now. And the "those in power" are us -- not a hegemonic "them" but all of us in the dominant "normal" culture -- who don't want to be bothered.
Tom Reynolds, a theologian in Canada who has tackled issues of disability and inclusion, puts it this way: "The basic question of human existence is whether there is welcome at the heart of things, whether we can find a home with others who recognize us, value us, and empower us to become ourselves" ("Vulnerable Communion," 2008).
If we are not working toward creating that "welcome at the heart of things" for everyone, then we are building asylums.
More information about text formats