Opinion: Thoughtful actions can have profound effects

Sometimes amid all of the clatter and noise about cuts in services, people lose sight of the good that can come from thoughtful government action and courage.

Years ago, people with mental illnesses and physical disabilities were removed from their communities and warehoused in state institutions. Many of them died there and were buried in unmarked graves.

Some were treated as subhumans and were subjected to medical experiments without their consent.

Fortunately, times have changed for these individuals who no longer live in what were known as state asylums. Today they live in group and individual settings.

One of those institutions was in Cambridge, where recently they had a ceremony recognizing the reading of the 2010 state apology to persons who had been committed to state institutions.

Christine O’Connor was at that ceremony. She recalled how she was sent to the Cambridge State Hospital at the age of 19 and how she didn’t have freedom at the hospital. “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.”

Today she lives in a group home with three other roommates and says she has the power of freedom to do what she wants to do.

She’s treated as a human being and she loves it. “I just love my life because I’m more independent. I recently started working in our center’s thrift store. I am gaining more confidence in how to live with people.”

Some day she’d like to have a job where she could work with children with disabilities.

Thanks to enlightened Minnesota legislators, lives have changed dramatically for the disabled. That has cost money.

The Minnesota Legislature in its latest budget deal added $1 billion to the Minnesota Human Services budget, but also cut $1 billion in forecasted growth in Health and Human Services programs, some affecting the vulnerable among us.

It is well to dwell on the apology by the 2010 Legislature that was read aloud in Cambridge as we citizens of the state consider the future path of caring for people with disabilities.

“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.

“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 and

“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 and

“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.

“Be it resolved by the Legislature of the State of Minnesota on behalf of the citizens of the state that the state apologizes publicly to all persons with mental illness and developmental and other disabilities who have been wrongfully committed to state institutions and 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.” — Don Heinzman, ECM Publishers

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