Reflections on the State of Minnesota’s Apology to People with Disabilities
BE IT RESOLVED by the Legislature of the State of Minnesota on behalf of the citizens of the state that the state apologize publicly to all persons with mental illness and developmental and other disabilities who have been wrongfully committed to state institutions, acknowledging that it regrets this history of institutionalization of persons with those disabilities, and that it commits itself in their memory to move steadfastly to help Minnesotans with those disabilities who in the future turn to the state for services to receive them in the least restrictive manner. (H.F.168/S.F.1135)
This text is from the resolution passed by the Minnesota Legislature and signed by Gov. Pawlenty on May 25 offering an official apology to Minnesotans with disabilities and those with mental illness, and their families, who were harmed by the experience of institutionalization in the state reaching back as far as the 1800s. The resolution is the result of decades of work by activists – especially the Remembering with Dignity (RWD) project based at Advocating Change Together (ACT) – who have sought to close institutions, create more community and family living options for people with disabilities and mental illness, remember those who lived and died in Minnesota’s institutions, and acknowledge that part of our history.
Cliff Poetz, a self-advocate on the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) staff and former ACT/RWD board member, has been one of the people pushing for the apology. When asked for his reaction to the resolution, he observed, “I think the apology proves that if we are persistent we can make changes that are needed. It has taken 13 years to get the apology. Someone came to the ACT office back in the 1990s and said that nobody gave me an apology for being in the state institution. We started working on it, and I find it quite remarkable that we now have this apology. I think we’ve learned that the legislature is listening to us. Sen. John Marty and Rep. Karen Clark who authored the resolution should be given great credit, along with all legislators who supported it.” Nathan Perry, another self-advocate at ICI and former ACT/RWD board member, adds, “The apology is important to me in that the state officially says that what they did was wrong. It also puts closure on the issue for so many people with disabilities that have lived in institutions.”
The apology also shows the importance of ongoing advocacy efforts. As self-advocate and ICI staffer Kurt Rutzen notes, “This year I’ve been in meetings about the problems that went on at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options program and I would not sit down until they heard me loud and clear. Some staff at the Capitol have told me that they will only ‘hear’ what I say because I have a disability and know so well the experience of dealing with the issues we need to deal with.” And according to a statement from ACT, “This formal apology gives Remembering With Dignity important impetus as it continues to pursue it’s other goals: marking the anonymous graves of those who lived and died in state institutions, as well as raising public awareness of disability rights issues.”
The full text of the resolution can be found at http://wdoc.house.leg.state.mn.us/leg/LS86/HF1680.1.pdf, and information about RWD is at http://www.selfadvocacy.org/programs/rwd.