Most of you have already seen this Letter to the Editor that I wrote to the Daily Local. I’m putting this on here more for me, so that I always have a copy and can reference it if I want to, especially if the link disappears (which it has). Basically, on Monday, there was an article about how successful the Pennhurst Asylum attraction is this season. Blech. I felt compelled to respond, so I did. Here it is:
Today on my list of things to do is to go to the back of my garage, dig out my “Respect Pennhurst” yard sign and put it in my front yard. Down at this end of the county, most of my neighbors probably don’t even know what it means. But I do. Funny thing is, it just didn’t occur to me that I’d even have to think about it again this year.
If you read the article in Monday’s Daily Local, talking about how successful the venue is, it’s laughable. If you define success as making money by reinforcing stereotypes and annoying your neighbors, I guess it is successful. Not one local person was interviewed, talking about how much fun this is — they have to import paying customers from Schuylkill and Dauphin counties.
Here’s my disclaimer: I parent a child with special needs and I am in a training program at the Arc of Chester County in order to become a special education advocate. I am not unbiased when it comes to this topic.
One of my favorite essays about being a special needs parent talks about the “lens of sensitivity” that you acquire when you have a special needs child. I often have to evaluate myself and ask if I’m being too sensitive in some situations. In this case, no, I’m not. It’s insensitive to create such a venue on this site. This whole thing only goes to reinforce stereotypes — that the mentally ill and mentally challenged are odd, and to be feared, and not to be respected for who they are.
What if it was a defunct military base? What if, as part of the scare factor, we had soldiers terrorizing civilians, even killing them, just to scare you? Not a nice part of American military history, but hey, it’s happened. If it was an old concentration camp and we were portraying Holocaust victims, it would be unacceptable. If it was held on an old plantation and people were chained up as slaves, it would be unacceptable. This isn’t acceptable.
If you look at their website, they don’t even have the courtesy to make mention of the real history on their history page. If you want to buy a ticket, you can be a VIP — “Very Important Patient” when you make your purchase.
Do the venue owners have any inkling of what it was like, to really be a patient there? The real patients of Pennhurst faced fears so atrocious; they can’t even be depicted in a silly attraction.
We live in a society where unfortunately, some still think it’s OK to hold the mentally handicapped hostage and chained in the basement. We live in a society where if you send a child with special needs to school, he/she has a greater than 90 percent chance of being bullied and made fun of; their siblings have a greater than 75 percent chance of being bullied.
We’re not there yet, folks. We are not at the point where we can look back at the real horrible history of Pennhurst and say “Whew, never again” and rest on our laurels and open a fun, recreational attraction. Because each and every day, the mentally challenged in our country are still routinely discriminated against and ridiculed.
Parents of special needs children are still routinely encouraged to institutionalize their children, rather than be given the proper support systems to allow the family to remain intact.
No, people aren’t going there with the intent of making fun of the handicapped. But it’s reinforcing stereotypes, plain and simple. There are plenty of other ways to have a very frightening attraction, and not at the expense of others. And not at the expense of individuals who are often victimized in our society and cannot defend themselves.
See also: PARC, Pennhurst and Pennsylvania’s disability history