Updated: May 31
By Daisy Hampton, 11
July is Disability Pride Month in New York City, and July 26th is the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. New York City usually celebrates Disability Pride Month with a joyous parade from Madison Square Park to Union Square, but because of COVID-19, it was cancelled this year. While disappointing, we can still celebrate Disability Pride and the heroes of the Disability Advocacy movement. Bernard Carabello is a pioneer of the movement and a celebrated New Yorker for good reason.
Bernard Carabello was born in 1950 with cerebral palsy, but was misdiagnosed as being developmentally disabled. At the advice of doctors, in 1954 his mother placed him in Willowbrook State School, an institution for children and adults with developmental disabilities, where he remained for 18 years. Willowbrook was understaffed, overcrowded and underfunded, and its residents suffered abuse, disease and were otherwise treated inhumanely. In 1965, Senator Robert Kennedy paid an unannounced visit to Willowbrook and described it as a “snake pit.” In 1972, a physician there, Dr. Mike Wilkins, started raising awareness of the conditions at Willowbrook, and he was fired. He kept a key though, and brought journalists there, including Geraldo Rivera and newspaper reporters. Bernard was interviewed there and later he was snuck out for other interviews. The newspaper coverage and Rivera’s documentary caused public outrage. Parents of residents brought lawsuits and eventually the courts issued a judgement requiring improved conditions. Finally, in 1987, Willowbrook was closed. Bernard Carabello was released, with the help of Dr. Wilkins, when he was 21. When he was released, Bernard continued to fight for disability rights and founded the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State in 1986, where he worked until his retirement and still retains an office. I was lucky to interview Bernard and was inspired by his story.
Daisy Hampton: How old were you when you went to Willowbrook?
Bernard Carabello: I was three years old.
DH: Can you explain why you were placed there?