This Month in Disability History

January 2015


By Mike Reynolds
Ability Maine Staff




January 4th 1809 - Louis Braille Born - Louis Braille became blind atthe age of 3, after an accident and subsequent infection. At the age of 10, Braille earned a scholarship to the Royal Institution for Blind Youth in Paris, one of the first schools for blind individuals. At age 11, after being introduced to a form of communication that used 12 raised dots, Braille began devising his own form of communication, Braille.  Finishing the basic structure of Braille at age 15, he later vexpanded the system to include a way to notate music and do mathematics. He also worked with a contemporary to develop the machine Braille is typed on.


January 6th 1969 - Abuse Uncovered at Willowbrook State School -Several local Staten Island, New York. Newspapers wrote about deplorable conditions for residents of the school, including overcrowding inadequate sanitary facilities, and physical and sexual abuse of residents by members of the school's staff. The school served students with severe physical and mental impairments. These abuses were exposed after it was discovered students were being used for Hepatitis studieswithout any knowledge of parents.Further problems plagued the institution: In1972, Geraldo Rivera, then an new and young investigative reporter for television station WABC-TV in New York City, conducted a series of investigations at Willowbrook Rivera later appeared on the nationally televised Dick Cavett Show, one of the most popular shows at the time on television, with film of patients at the school. The outcry of parents and elected officials led to broad changes in the way people with intellectual disabilities and physical
disabilities were cared for, by spearheading the importance of parent advocacy, the mainstreaming of students with disabilities, and the importance of community based supports.The publicity generated by the case was a major contributing factor to the passage of a federal law, called the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act of 1980.In 1983, the State of New York announced plans to close Willowbrook, which had been renamed the Staten Island Developmental Center in 1974. By the end of March 1986, the number of residents housed there had dwindled to 250 (down from 5,000 at the height of the scandal exposed by Rivera), and the last patients left the grounds on September 17,1987.


January 8, 1997 - Not Dead Yet activists protest in front of the US Supreme Court - Between 500 to 1000 activists with Not Dead Yet, an group opposed to suicide or the basis that assisted suicide violates the inherent rights of people with disabilities turned out to show a strong opposition to any form of legalized assisted suicide. The court had agreed to hear two cases, Washington v. Glucksberg, based out of Washington State, and Vasco vs. Quill, a case from New York.  While activists from The Hemlock
Society, an assisted suicide advocacy organization, were outnumbered by a ratio of 10 to 1.The protest would attract international media coverage and would be the largest rally to date for Not Dead Yet. The court would rule against any "right to assisted suicide" in June of that year.


January 11, 2001 - Statue of Roosevelt in Wheelchair Dedicated - On a cold winter day in Washington DC, with several hundred members of the disability community present.  The push to have Roosevelt portrayed in a wheelchair was led by Jim Dickson, who
worked tirelessly to convince lawmakers to create a statue of Roosevelt.  The statue was funded by donations obtained and relentless advocacy by the National Organization on Disability, who hired Dickson to head the campaign. The group raised 1.65 million dollars to fund the creation of the statue. The life-size bronze statue is the work of sculptor Robert Graham of Venice, Calif., one of the four sculptors of the original Memorial. It is an inspirational depiction of President Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair that he designed and used daily for more than two decades, including while Governor of New York, and President from 1933 until his death in 1945. As one of the final speeches he gave as President, Bill Clinton spoke eloquently about the contributions of Roosevelt to American history, and to the contributions of people with disabilities in contemporary American Society, even mentioning Jonathan Young, a disabled member of the White House staff, who played a tremendous part in the organization of the ceremony.

January 13, 1966 - Patrick Dempsey Born - Dempsey, was born in Lewiston, Maine and grew up in Turner, Maine, the youngest of three children born to Amanda and William Dempsey, an insurance agent. Dempsey attended St. Dominic Regional High School for his senior year, where his mother worked as a secretary, but dropped out before he graduated. He was an adept juggler, tying for second in a national juggling competition. Dempsey also spent some of his school years in the town of Buckfield, Maine, where he attended Buckfield High School in the Maine School Administrative District (MSAD) #39 for hisfreshman through junior years.  Dempsey was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 12. He told Barbara Walters on her 2008 Oscar's special that hethinks dyslexia "made him what he is today." "It's given me a perspective of -- you have to keep working," Dempsey told Walters. "I
have never given up." In 1997, Dempsey's mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was treated for the disease and had two relapses and had it treated another two times. In response to his mother's bouts with cancer, Dempsey helped start the Patrick Dempsey Center in his home town of Lewiston, Maine.  In early 2009, he announced an annual multi-day cycling tour which will be 100 miles and benefit The Dempsey Center. In March, 2014 his mother died.