Recently, the remains of about 40 children and adults with disabilities and
other special needs, originally buried in unmarked graves during the late
1890's on the grounds of the now-closed Stockton State Hospital (45 miles
south of Sacramento) were reburied They were among the estimated
25,000 children and adults with developmental disabilities and people with
mental health needs who lived and died in California's state hospitals
between the mid-1880's and 1965.
During that time period, those 40 children and adults in
Stockton, like the thousands of others buried in other places at
that state facility and other state hospitals, were considered
"invisible" members of society and ignored by the rest of the
world even when they lived. Those without families to claim their bodies
when they died, were often put into unmarked graves and were forgotten as
quickly as the last shovel of dirt that covered them.
The California Memorial Project, a collaboration of people with mental
health needs, people with developmental disabilities and other advocates,
along with state and local agencies, helped to identify those persons
forgotten and buried, and to remember them with the respect and honor that
they never received in life.
Dick Jacobs, executive director of Valley Mountain Regional Center, observed
that recent reburial in Stockton and recalled that during the original
excavation of the unmarked graves "...One of the crew reportedly wept
openly while exposing the remains of a little girl who was apparently buried
with nothing other than the plain shift that 'inmates' wore in those days.
Perhaps he was hoping to find the remains of a doll, I don't know."
Remembering the past is always linked to how we live in the present and view
our future. The California Memorial Project, like other efforts
to remember the past, is also about honoring those who died, and respecting
people now. That is something important for all of us to
understand, not just in the disability community, but also
for policymakers and others in our State and nation.
It also has some important lessons to teach us as advocates and policymakers
in the coming months, whether in health care reform or how the State
responds to a budget crisis that grows worse each month.
Remembering the Good Things and the Bad
Certainly remembering the past means remembering the good things this
country has done and the progress it has made in human rights.
Certainly there is much for all of us to be proud of. There is no
better country, and no better ideals as expressed in the Constitution than
the United States of America.
But the California Memorial Project and other efforts, including remembering
the Holocaust or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II
and other terrible chapters in our past, is important because it also
reminds us how often our country has badly treated people because of
differences in color, because of disabilities, gender, age, because of
mental health needs, because of sexual orientation, because of income status
or what other country they immigrated from.
Yes, our country has changed dramatically since that time in Stockton over a
century ago, and will continue to change. Hopefully the good changes will
outweigh the bad, or at least correct the bad things of the past.
But there are bad things happening now - and bad things that many fear will
happen in the coming months.
Another Important Reason to Remember the Past
George Santayana once wrote that "Those who cannot remember the
past are condemned to repeat it."
So there is another important reason to remember.
It is important for us to also remember that the rest of the world, and the
rest of the country during that time and times more recent, claimed it
"did not know". Some people during that time were simply
indifferent, because they did not care or had other important things to
We need to remember that indifference, not hate, as Elie Weisal once
wrote, is the opposite of love because it is often more destructive, more
insidious and more shameful. Indifference means that good people stand
by and do nothing to stop an injustice, to correct a wrong or to cry out for
help while another is being hurt.
Indifference is the silence that lies, it is the trust in things that
betrays our values. It is the evil that stands by and allows
shameful and bad things to happen, whether 100 years ago, or 50 years
ago, or here and now.
Less than a half century ago, many people thought it was okay to isolate
people who were different either through poverty, because of disabilities or
mental health needs or color. Even more people would have claimed they
did not know or through indifference claimed they did not see.
Now, over some 50 to 100 years later , how does that past - and the
subsequent things that have happened - matter to us beyond simply
remembering the people who died and were treated so shamefully? Or
are we condemned to repeat the same mistake again?
Lessons in Advocacy In Remembering Our Past
Frederick Douglass once wrote that "when poverty is enforced, when
justice is denied, when anyone feels that government is an organized
conspiracy to rob, or oppress them, then no one, no property is
So the lesson for us to learn in remembering, which is a constant
part of our never ending training in advocacy, is that when people
are treated as non-entities or not deserving, if a people are looked on
as invisible or powerless, then bad things are almost certain to happen
And yet because we are one community - whether we believe it or not -
when that happens, the whole nation, the whole world is degraded
To really honor those who died over a century ago. for those who died more
recently up to 1965 in those state hospitals, cast into graves without
dignity or respect, means that we need to also remember
that decisions on policy that allowed those things to happen, were
made by those who "show up" and were allowed to also happen by
the people who didn't.
"Showing up" means not just a physical presence, it means that
all of us - our families, our friends, our neighbors and
co-workers need to "show up" and take action. It
means not being silent and not being indifferent.
Now it is December of 2007 and California now faces a $14 billion
shortfall that is certain to be addressed by policymakers by massive
budget cuts and reductions.
And what is also certain is that pretty bad things will be proposed that
impact children, adults and seniors who live in what I have
called the "Other California" - people with
disabilities, seniors, people with mental health needs, children and
families and workers who are poor.
Many good policymakers - and many other Californians - will allow bad and
shameful things to happen and claim indifference or that they did not
In reconciling our past with the reburial of 40 children and adults with
disabilities, with mental health needs who were shamefully disposed of
in unmarked graves means to remember and honor them and others who
died and were cast out 50 to 100 years ago by remembering that
we must not be invisible. It means that we must remember that we
are all part of the same community and to remind others of that right.
It means that we need to also remind ourselves that decisions are made
by those who show up. It means that we must teach ourselves that if we truly
believe in inclusion and self determination then we must also
believe we have the power and responsibility to create change, to protect
our friends and families, and to remind the world - and perhaps most
importantly ourselves, that a life matters .
Decisions are made by those who show up, who are not invisible, who by their
very presence demand to be noticed, to be a part of what happens in their
life in every possible way. It means to be respected and to bring down
the comforting veil of indifference that divides and separates us from
the rest of California and our nation.
If we do that, we will be honoring those who have died in those
state hospitals in unmarked graves that an indifferent world wanted to
forget and we will be respecting the lives they had lived by
"showing up" and insisting that the world respect ours.
Thanks and Some Next Steps
Thanks to Shella DuMong of Santa Barbara, a good
friend and a parent of two children, including a daughter with disabilities
and disability rights advocate, for urging me to write this commentary (it
would not have happened otherwise) and for the George Santayana quote
she gave me and for the help in reviewing the final draft.
Also thanks to Benaye Cooke of Red Bluff, a
friend and a person with developmental disabilities and a disability
rights advocate, who is passionately involved with the California Memorial
Project and has constantly kept that issue in front of me over the years.
The reference to the "Other
California" is a previous commentary I wrote originally in 2005, and
can be viewed by going to the CDCAN website.
Also, for people interested in "showing
up", please join us in a series of on-going Advocacy Teleconferences
via toll free lines. The first was held on December 18th and two more are
January 3 (Thursday) 2008 between 1 and 2 PM
January 11 (Friday) 2008 between 1 and 2 PM
Dial toll free number: 1-800-608-4143
Note: there is NO passcode
Background information -
California Memorial Project:
The California Memorial Project is a
partnership of the California Network of Mental Health Clients, Capitol
People First, and the Peer and Self-Advocacy Units of Protection and
Advocacy, Inc. (PAI) and was supported with legislation passed in
2002 (SB 1448, Chapter 490, Statutes of 2002) and also 2006 (SB 258,
Chapter 391, Statutes of 2006) by then State Senator Wes Chesbro. The
Project holds an annual rememberance day - the most recent was held in
September 2007 at some of the state and developmental centers.
For more information - including copies of those
bills, go to the CDCAN website at www.cdcan.us
Without Borders: Connecting People With Disabilities, Mental
Health Needs, Seniors, Traumatic Brain & other injuries,
People with MS & other health needs, including People of
color, different languages, cultures, Families, Workers,
Providers, & Organizations to Rights & Unified Action.
This report - and the CDCAN townhalls, and other events and
projects are for all of them and for promoting advocacy
without borders toward unified action. We are one
To respond to this report reply to: Marty Omoto at martyomoto@rcip.
com CDCAN website: www.cdcan.us
To continue the CDCAN website,
the CDCAN News Reports. sent out and read by over 45,000
people and organizations, policy makers and media across
California and to continue the CDCAN "Advocacy Without
Borders Townhall Telemeetings" which since December 2003
have connected thousands of people with disabilities, seniors,
mental health needs, people with MS and other disorders,
people with traumatic brain and other injuries to public
policy makers, legislators, and issues. Please send your
donation (make payable to "CDCAN" or
"California Disability Community Action Network):
1225 8th Street Suite 480
Sacramento, CA 95814
or go to the CDCAN website at and click on
"DONATE TO CDCAN" to contribute using credit card
The CDCAN Townhall Telemeetings are partially funded by a
small grant from the USC UCEDD, Grant #90DD0540 from the
Administration on Developmental Disabilities. (note: the
opinions expressed or content in these reports do not
necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the USC UCEDD.
MANY THANKS to Easter
Seals of Southern California, Arc Contra Costa, Pause4Kids,
Manteca CAPS, Training Toward Self Reliance, UCP, California
NAELA, Californians for Disability Rights, Inc (CDR) including
CDR chapters, CHANCE Inc, Parents Helping Parents, Arriba,
Strategies To Empower People (STEP), Alta California
Regional Center, Harbor Regional Center, Tri-Counties Regional
Center, Asian American parents groups, Resources for
Independent Living Adoption Assistance Program Families, SEIU,
and many other Independent Living Centers, several
regional centers, People First chapters, IHSS workers, other
self advocacy and family support groups, developmental center
families, adoption assistance program families and children,
and others across California.