Tuesday, July 6, 2010

In Praise of Burton Blatt

wait, graphite on paper, 1989, D. Callis

I was going through some files and came across a paper I presented on the work of educator and reformer, Dr. Burton Blatt. In 1965 Burton Blatt, then director of the Division of Special Education at Syracuse University and his friend, photographer Fred Kaplan, visited a number of east coast residential facilities for the developmentally disabled and documented the visits with a small camera mounted in Kaplan's belt buckle. the images were first published in Look magazine and later as a book entitled Christmas in Purgatory. As Kaplan's images profoundly disrupted the psyche of the American imagination with visuals that aggressively denied the mid-century believe in the goodness and compassionate care of our medical and education institutions, particularly as it provided for our most vulnerable citizens.

Blatt spent the rest of his professional career reconstructing an American imagination that concerned the developmentally disabled using his skills as an educator, writer, poet and Catholic layman. As an educator he served on several presidential committees on educational reform, he is credited with establishing most of what we now teach in our universities concerning educational mainstreaming. As a Catholic writer and poet he worked from a cosmology that could confront evil and suffering and at the same time locate grace, celebration and profound joy. In his novel, The Revolt of the Idiots, he asks us to imagine a peaceful revolt in which disabled residents shed their label of patient and take on the role of citizen, demanding their civil rights and simply walking out of the institution and into a small town which had realized the value and worth of these odd people. In the story one of the townsman argues with compassion, "each man's life means everything, or it means nothing. He is the only man or no man exists. Each life and each death is a profound event, or no life - not a single life ever - was of any consequence. Everything matters or nothing has mattered.

In another reforming work entitled, Exodus from Pandemonium he recounts his participation on an inspection team. The team has just toured one of the back wards of a state institution for the long term care of the mental retarded. He recounts, "I have seen it all too many times. A gust of fresh, clean air rushed around us as the front door was unlocked, but the relief at regaining my freedom was shattered by a scream from above, "Good-bye, you fuckin doctors!" A shirtless man, his face twisted in anger, was waving his fist from the second-story window. I smiled and waved to him. He waved back and, as anger gave way to a smile, he waved again, this time with open palm. This was Building 8, a "custodial dormitory" for people the institution has labeled "severely mentally retarded" and for people who label their keepers "you funckin doctors."

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