When Silence Speaks: The Institutionalization and Dehumanization of People with Disabilities, Greece, 1989

Ask a child’s silence to speak, and you will hear truths you never wished you’d known. When will it be time to break our silence? When will it be time– boom, boom, boom– black echos in an empty room.

My dissertation on disability and interdependence has taken me to places I wish I’d never heard of, but whose reality must be known, whose horror must be shared. The following is not about a concentration camp, folks, but about a facility on a small island off the coast of Greece in 1989. Most people will not read the book from which the report of this place comes, but lest our attitudes continue and history repeat itself, we all must know what went on behind those walls. This is part of the terrible responsibility that befalls us all, to face and acknowledge what is, but I hope something new and transformative will come of it.

“In the past the most common form of care provision made for disabled people has been institutions. Institutionalisation is an experience of powerlessness which can grossly multiply the effects of our physical limitations. The disability movement throughout the industrialised world has seen the struggle against residential care as one of the most important parts of the fight for human rights. The Union of the Physically Impaired against Segregation, for example, stated that: “The reality of our position as an oppressed group can be seen most clearly in segregated residential institutions, the ultimate human scrap-heaps of this society. Thousands of people are sentenced to these prisons for life–which may these days be a long one. For the vast majority there is still no alternative, no appeal, no remission of sentence for good behaviour, no escape except the escape from life itself.” (UPIAS , 1981, p. 2.)

In their analysis of the literature on all kinds of institutions, Kathleen Jones and A J Fowles concluded that in spite of the disparate approaches of the major writers in this area, there were five findings common to life experienced in a wide range of institutions. They were: loss of liberty; social stigma; loss of autonomy; depersonalisation; and low material standards (K Jones and A J Fowles, 1984, p. 202).

Disabled people argue that these features are as much part of modern day institutions as they were of those in the nineteenth century although the degree to which they are experienced may vary.

I want to look at some of the most devastating emotional and physical abuse which is still to be found in institutions today. Such abuse is an important feature of institutional “care” for disabled people in many different countries.

In 1989 John Merritt described the situation in which hundreds of mentally ill, learning disabled and physically disabled men, women and children are kept on the Greek island of Leros. The smell hits like the reek of an abattoir and the scenes flicker past like some depraved peep show … Everywhere are prison bars. In an upstairs cell, bodies lie on beds, naked or wrapped in grey sacking material. Some are curled together, finding comfort in mutual foetal positions, not people but one being. How old are they? 26? 80? A blanket pulled back shows knotted legs. How long has he been there? ’24 years.” In the bed? “Yes, since four years old.” Others are tied, hand and foot to their beds, Why? “To stop them from falling. (J Merritt, 1989).
In the children’s unit, 85 per cent don’t leave their beds, because of their physical disabilities. “Some are strapped down because “they bite.” One doctor who visited the children’s unit recently said: “Young children with severe handicaps gaze at the ceiling, huddled together, watched by a guard. There is no communication.” A blind baby was picked up for my inspection. He was five years old. He was put back on the bed to lie, motionless, thumb in mouth, a tiny scrap of humanity totally shut out of human contact.”

Earlier in 1989, Dr Frank Peters and
Gerard Vincken, a Dutch psychiatrist and a psychiatric nurse, spent three months on Leros, working with 20 people, beginning to bring them back to life as an example of what could be achieved. They said of the people incarcerated there, “They were dumped in this isolated place to rot. You might just have killed them then. But most awful is the fact that they are simply waiting until death comes. This is the destruction of the spirit, of the man not the body.” Vincken and Peters quoted Primo Levi who wrote of the Nazi concentration camps: “Our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man ‘ It is not possible to sink lower than this … Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand.”
—–Quoted from “Pride Against Prejudice,” by Jenny Morris.

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