Thursday, December 20, 2007

Marty Omoto, "Remembering the Past"

This is a new commentary by Marty Omoto, director/organizer of the California Disability Community Action Network (CDCAN). I've mentioned before how valuable the frequent email newsletters from CDCAN are; Omoto's personal commentaries are less frequent, but also well worth a read--and because this one is about disability history, I'm even more inclined to share it. (I added links where appropriate.) His email says "It's okay to forward this, just provide attribution." Thanks, Marty! Keep up the great work.-- PLR

by Marty Omoto (December 2007)

Recently, the remains of about 40 children and adults with disabilities and other special needs, originally buried in unmarked graves during the late 1890's on the grounds of the now-closed Stockton State Hospital (45 miles south of Sacramento) were reburied. They were among the estimated 25,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities and people with mental health needs who lived and died in California's state hospitals between the mid-1880's and 1965.

During that time period, those 40 children and adults in Stockton, like the thousands of others buried in other places at that state facility and other state hospitals, were considered "invisible" members of society and ignored by the rest of the world even when they lived. Those without families to claim their bodies when they died, were often put into unmarked graves and were forgotten as quickly as the last shovel of dirt that covered them.

The California Memorial Project, a collaboration of people with mental health needs, people with developmental disabilities and other advocates, along with state and local agencies, helped to identify those persons forgotten and buried, and to remember them with the respect and honor that they never received in life.

Dick Jacobs, executive director of Valley Mountain Regional Center, observed that recent reburial in Stockton and recalled that during the original excavation of the unmarked graves "...One of the crew reportedly wept openly while exposing the remains of a little girl who was apparently buried with nothing other than the plain shift that 'inmates' wore in those days. Perhaps he was hoping to find the remains of a doll, I don't know."

Remembering the past is always linked to how we live in the present and view our future. The California Memorial Project, like other efforts to remember the past, is also about honoring those who died, and respecting people now. That is something important for all of us to understand, not just in the disability community, but also for policymakers and others in our State and nation.

It also has some important lessons to teach us as advocates and policymakers in the coming months, whether in health care reform or how the State responds to a budget crisis that grows worse each month.

Remembering the Good Things and the Bad
Certainly remembering the past means remembering the good things this country has done and the progress it has made in human rights. Certainly there is much for all of us to be proud of. There is no better country, and no better ideals as expressed in the Constitution than the United States of America.

But the California Memorial Project and other efforts, including remembering the Holocaust or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and other terrible chapters in our past, is important because it also reminds us how often our country has badly treated people because of differences in color, because of disabilities, gender, age, because of mental health needs, because of sexual orientation, because of income status or what other country they immigrated from.

Yes, our country has changed dramatically since that time in Stockton over a century ago, and will continue to change. Hopefully the good changes will outweigh the bad, or at least correct the bad things of the past.

But there are bad things happening now - and bad things that many fear will happen in the coming months.

Another Important Reason to Remember the Past
George Santayana once wrote that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

So there is another important reason to remember.

It is important for us to also remember that the rest of the world, and the rest of the country during that time and times more recent, claimed it "did not know". Some people during that time were simply indifferent, because they did not care or had other important things to worry about.

We need to remember that indifference, not hate, as Elie Weisel once wrote, is the opposite of love because it is often more destructive, more insidious and more shameful. Indifference means that good people stand by and do nothing to stop an injustice, to correct a wrong or to cry out for help while another is being hurt.

Indifference is the silence that lies, it is the trust in things that betrays our values. It is the evil that stands by and allows shameful and bad things to happen, whether 100 years ago, or 50 years ago, or here and now.

Less than a half century ago, many people thought it was okay to isolate people who were different either through poverty, because of disabilities or mental health needs or color. Even more people would have claimed they did not know or through indifference claimed they did not see.

They did.

Now, over some 50 to 100 years later , how does that past - and the subsequent things that have happened - matter to us beyond simply remembering the people who died and were treated so shamefully? Or are we condemned to repeat the same mistake again?

Lessons in Advocacy In Remembering Our Past
Frederick Douglass once wrote that "when poverty is enforced, when justice is denied, when anyone feels that government is an organized conspiracy to rob, or oppress them, then no one, no property is safe...."

So the lesson for us to learn in remembering, which is a constant part of our never ending training in advocacy, is that when people are treated as non-entities or not deserving, if a people are looked on as invisible or powerless, then bad things are almost certain to happen to them.

To us.

And yet because we are one community - whether we believe it or not - when that happens, the whole nation, the whole world is degraded. To really honor those who died over a century ago. for those who died more recently up to 1965 in those state hospitals, cast into graves without dignity or respect, means that we need to also remember that decisions on policy that allowed those things to happen, were made by those who "show up" and were allowed to also happen by the people who didn't.

"Showing up" means not just a physical presence, it means that all of us - our families, our friends, our neighbors and co-workers need to "show up" and take action. It means not being silent and not being indifferent.

Now it is December of 2007 and California now faces a $14 billion shortfall that is certain to be addressed by policymakers by massive budget cuts and reductions.

And what is also certain is that pretty bad things will be proposed that impact children, adults and seniors who live in what I have called the "Other California" - people with disabilities, seniors, people with mental health needs, children and families and workers who are poor.

Many good policymakers - and many other Californians - will allow bad and shameful things to happen and claim indifference or that they did not know.

They do.

In reconciling our past with the reburial of 40 children and adults with disabilities, with mental health needs who were shamefully disposed of in unmarked graves means to remember and honor them and others who died and were cast out 50 to 100 years ago by remembering that we must not be invisible. It means that we must remember that we are all part of the same community and to remind others of that right.

It means that we need to also remind ourselves that decisions are made by those who show up. It means that we must teach ourselves that if we truly believe in inclusion and self determination then we must also believe we have the power and responsibility to create change, to protect our friends and families, and to remind the world - and perhaps most importantly ourselves, that a life matters .

Decisions are made by those who show up, who are not invisible, who by their very presence demand to be noticed, to be a part of what happens in their life in every possible way. It means to be respected and to bring down the comforting veil of indifference that divides and separates us from the rest of California and our nation.

If we do that, we will be honoring those who have died in those state hospitals in unmarked graves that an indifferent world wanted to forget and we will be respecting the lives they had lived by "showing up" and insisting that the world respect ours.

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