Going to Hell in a Wheelbarrow

“The world is going to hell in a wheelbarrow, and this is not going to do retarded people any good.” Dr. Wolf Wolfensberger, Mental Retardation, February 1994.

I was skimming the current (April 2010) issue of Intellectual and Development al Disabilities: A Journal of Policy, Practices, and Perspectives, the official publication of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Whew! OK, one skims People Magazine. I was doing something else with the Journal.

In any case, when I came to the end of it I saw that Wolf Wolfensberger had a lengthy piece, “How to Comport Ourselves in an Era of Shrinking Resources.” I began reading and promptly felt like I’d been caught in the updraft of an F-6 tornado.

I’ve always admired and respected Wolfensberger. He’s an old-timer on the disability scene, long established by the time our daughter Kelly was born 25 years ago. He pioneered much of the early work examining society’s attitude toward people devalued because of their disabilities, and was one of a handful of people whose work and writings inspired us to build Down Home Ranch.

This current piece qualifies as a true Jeremiad, in the classic meaning of that term. It’s an unflinching analysis of social and economic trends, and of their implications for the lives of traditionally devalued members of society—those who are aged and/or ill, those with mental illness and intellectual disabilities, those who for whatever reason are economically unproductive. It is a prophecy of things to come.

Boiled way down, Wolfensberger’s conclusions are as follows:

1. Our national and world economies are fundamentally unhinged from reality-based principles that would ensure sustainability, with the result that they are in free-fall now and will continue to deteriorate until sane policies are restored;

2. In the historically “wealthy nations” birth rates have fallen so low that the proportion of working people necessary to fund social services, pensions, and other social obligations has fallen to unsustainable levels;

3. In part because of 2, above, social changes in the “wealthy nations” have been trending for decades toward a culture of “death-making,” i.e. solving the problem of the economic drain of unproductive citizens by preventing their birth through abortion (90% in the case of Down syndrome) or hastening their death through euthanasia (soon to be a favored option for us old folks);

4. The implementation of the theories and policies of academic institutions, advocates, and regulatory agencies have been more successful in ensuring the non-productivity of persons with disabilities rather than increasing opportunities for them to be productive;

5. Misuse of the tools of advocacy has led to absurdities in the funding of everything from cancer research to supports for adults with intellectual disabilities, resulting in enormous and indefensible disparities;

6. Traditional family values of thrift, sacrifice, faith, and self-reliance have caved before a culture that encourages debt, obsession with self, and pursuit of materialism;

7. In part because of 5, above, government agencies have assumed ever greater responsibility for meeting needs previously met by families, at far greater cost and with much less efficiency.

Wolfensberger then spells out his proposed remedies, at least insofar as ensuring that some decent level of care survives for people with disabilities. He is clearly not optimistic. He’s been through this before, in 1994, and was branded a lunatic at the time.

However, pretty much everything he predicted 16 years ago has come true, with startling (and depressing) accuracy. His voice resonates with me because I recall in 1984 gently rocking baby Kelly in the autumn sunlight that streamed through the window of the living room of our home in Austin, thinking about…demographics.

I knew where things were headed. That’s another reason we built the Ranch.

Warning: this piece is an equal-opportunity offender. No matter where you place yourself on the political spectrum, you are likely to feel skewered at some point or another.

But if you care about our people I strongly encourage you to read it carefully, think about it deeply, and share it with others.

Because our ability to protect the ones we love will depend on how we respond.