Ending Segregation of the Mentally Disabled
On his last day in the state hospital, Wally Burns pulled on a new pair of plaid shorts and a neatly pressed polo shirt. He savored a final meal of eggs and grits, apple juice and milk, toast and a sweet doughnut stick.
“You have a new home now,” his attendant told him, reminding him of the big move only hours away. “We hope you’ll like it.”
Mr. Burns’s blue eyes wandered as he listened in silence. He has not spoken a single word since he was 5 years old.
For more than three decades, he has lived here at Central State Hospital, known in its darkest days as the home of the psychotic, the manic and the hopeless. For generations, invalids here have sipped life through feeding tubes, grown men with the minds of children have hummed tuneless melodies and patients tormented by delusions have banged their bodies against the walls with wordless screams.
No one dreamed that Mr. Burns would ever leave. He is severely mentally retarded and his doctors and parents assumed he would spend his final years here. Instead, Mr. Burns, who is 51, was preparing for something utterly unexpected: a life beyond the hospital walls.
“You ready to move?” a hospital coordinator asked Mr. Burns, who was hunched in his chair, seemingly oblivious to the question. “You ready?”
Once viewed as outcasts to be shunned and isolated in institutions, hundreds of Georgia’s most disabled citizens are taking their first tentative steps back into society. Their fledgling journeys, marked by uncertainty, jubilation and some setbacks, are unfolding as officials embark on an ambitious plan to profoundly reshape the lives of the cognitively and physically impaired.