Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Dillon, M. (Producer). (2004). Recollections of the institution: Personal reflections from people who lived in institutions for persons with mental retardation [video]. Cicero, NY: Program Development Associates, Inc. (5620 Business Ave., Suite B, Cicero, NY 13039), 40 minutes, $89.95.

Reviewed by Ladislava Khailova, Northern Illinois University

Recollections of the Institution, produced by Michael R. Dillon, Ed.D., for the National Historic Preservation Trust on Mental Retardation, is a 40-minute documentary focused on the realities of institutions for people with mental retardation. Through excerpts from interviews with former residents of Willowbrook State, Rome State, Letchworth Village, and other New York state institutions, the program presents its viewers with the unique opportunity to get an insider's view of a daily life in these and similar facilities. The interviewees' reflections are accompanied by archival photographs and footage of institutions from the last half of the twentieth century.

Recollections is likely to shock the audience through its unveiling of the inhumane living conditions in the institutions. The speakers' testimonials intertwine to form a tapestry depicting a collective story of abandonment by parents, first experiences in the overcrowded, filthy facilities, and subsequent exposure to physical abuse by staff. Michael Kennedy, former Rome State resident, describes people lying naked on mats in rooms furnished with plastic chairs. Gary Cohen, former Willowbrook resident, adds that the one shower stall in his 60-person dormitory was always full of feces. They and others relate their experiences of being kicked, slapped, thrown against the wall, or hit with a stick, often for unclear reasons. As Kennedy sums up these testimonials, "Animals get better treated than this."

Such commentaries reflect the documentary's strong anti-institutional agenda. Reflections focuses on the facilities' lack of manpower and financial resources, as well as a lack of basic human respect for their residents, and belief in the residents' potential. Correspondingly, there are only brief (and mostly unflattering) mentions of the institutions' educational efforts. For instance, short archival footage introduces Bernard, a middle-aged man living in Willowbrook for 18 years, yet exposed to mere five years of physical therapy and schooling. He wishes to learn how to read, but is denied the opportunity on the grounds that he is too old. Thus, Reflections warns that, contrary to popular belief, institutionalization hampers rather than fosters personal growth of people with retardation.

The documentary's anti-institutional appeal is further evident in its framing. Recollections opens with Dillon stating that "the institutional era is at its end; ...future generations must know this history if they are not to repeat it." Along these lines, the last minutes of the video offer a strong advocacy for integration, while appealing to such all-American values as self-determination, autonomy, and progress. When the interviewees discuss their life outside institutional walls, the emphasis is put on their ability to engage in simple acts of personal freedom, such as choosing one's friends, finding love, or working. In this way, the video presents integration as the only response to retardation that is humane and in agreement with traditional American democracy.

The National Historic Preservation Trust on Mental Retardation is not alone in using film to fight confinement of people with disabilities on society's periphery. Others have recently offered moving portrayals of individuals with developmental disabilities in support of their struggle for rightful full membership in this society. Significant examples include Gerardine Wurzburg's Educating Peter, an Academy-Award winner for Best Achievement Documentary Short Subject in 1992, and her 2004 feature Autism Is a World, also an Academy-Award nominee. Like these documentaries, Recollections deserves praise for going against a long history of either silencing people with disabilities or appropriating their voice, even if for allegedly noble purposes. In this documentary, people with mental retardation act as self-advocates–and they prove great at it.

Nevertheless, the producer's strategy of having former residents of institutions speak for themselves in order to convert viewers to the film's anti-institutionalism has several weaknesses. For one, the video would benefit from captioning–not only because a few of the interviewees find articulation difficult, but also because some viewers may be deaf, and it seems ironic that a documentary focused on mainstreaming would discriminate against them in any way. More importantly, the choice of speakers could have been more diverse. The vast majority of them are white males, which leaves the audience wondering if racial and gender discrimination continues to exist in institutions, as suggested in the past by such disability scholars as Stephen Noll or Licia Carlson. Along the same lines, in trying to ensure that individuals with retardation be given as much voice as possible, the documentary reaches the opposite extreme of silencing medical personnel and other staff of the institutions. Since they are not allowed to respond to charges of abuse and other forms of mistreatment, the documentary appears one-sided.

In spite of these shortcomings, Recollections deserves attention for its unveiling of the bleak realities of institutions for individuals with retardation, and for helping viewers recognize the potential that exists within these individuals. It represents an excellent tool for college courses in rehabilitation and special education, mental health practitioners, and disability advocacy groups.

Copyright (c) 2006 Ladislava Khailova

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