“Suffer the Little Children …” – Lessons from the Past: Segregation and Dehumanisation

By Catia Malaquias

[CONTENT WARNING: This article contains material in its original historic form – including video and images of a distressing nature and language concerning disability that is no longer acceptable today.]

Fifty years ago children with disability were still routinely institutionalised – and blatantly dehumanised in the most western of countries.

The idea that disabled children could benefit from education was beginning to be debated – sheltered workshops were progressive. What was happening in State institutions – institutions into which many parents entrusted their children  – was starting to be publicly questioned.

That time is within living memory for many within our society – for the rest of us it is within our inherited subconscious.  That time of TV in its infancy – and of the first person on the moon – still drives much of the modern limiting stereotypes about, low expectations for and indifferent cultural attitude towards, people with disability.

Acknowledging what was happening not so long ago helps reveal the entrenched and insidious implicit bias in much of society’s thinking today about disability.

In Burton Blatt’s 1966 photographic essay Christmas in Purgatory, the chapter of the plight of infants in State institutions in eastern America is  titled “Suffer the little children …” and reads:

“The infant dormitries depressed us the most. Here, cribs were placed – as in the other dormitries – side by side and head to head.  Very young children, one and two years of age, were lying in cribs, without interaction with any adult, without playthings, without any apparent stimulation. In one dormitry, that had over 100 infants and was connected to 9 other dormitries that totalled 1,000 infants, we experienced a heartbreaking encounter. As we entered, we heard a muffled sound emanating from the ‘blind’ side of a doorway. A young child seemed to be calling, ‘Come.  Come play with me. Touch me.’ We walked to the door. On the other side were forty or more unkept infants crawling around on a bare floor in a bare room. One of the children had managed to squeeze his hand under the doorway and push his face through the side of the latched door. His moan was the clearest representation we had ever heard of the lonely, hopeless man.  In other day rooms, we saw groups of 20 and 30 very young children lying, rocking, sleeping, sitting – alone. Each of these rooms were without toys or adult human contact, although each had desperate looking adult attendants ‘standing by’.

The ‘Special Education’ we observed in the dormitries for young children was certainly not education. But, it was special.  It was among the most especially frightening and depressing encounters with human beings we have ever experienced.”

You can download a PDF of Burton Blatt’s full photographic essay here.

In 1968 Bill Baldini, a TV reporter, investigated the conditions at Pennhurst State School, an institution for the intellectually disabled in Pennsylvania – his iconic 30 minute report also entitled “Suffer the little children” affected him to the extent he could not present the concluding segment.  The report was critical to accelerating the closure of institutions for the disabled in America.

Bill Baldini’s report takes 30 minutes to watch – it is not easy content  – but it provides an important insight into how governmental systems can become conditioned to the dehumanisation of people.  For the people with disability in the report – these institutions were more often their entire experience of “life” – they lost much more than 30 minutes.

The report is confronting to watch but unfortunately there is much that we can learn and improve today in our cultural attitudes and public policy by understanding how society treated disabled people 50 years ago and the practices of segregation and institutionalisation as a response to disabilty.

[Cover photo © Shttefan]

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