STEPPING UP

Sherri was in a nightmare! Unfortunately, not one that she could wake up from.

Sherri was desperately trying to lessen her anxiety as she stood outside the side entrance to the bleak building housing the “Ambulatory Men’s Unit” of Lynchburg Training School and Hospital in late October 1974. She did not belong here. She’d signed up for “Special Education,” teaching young kids in safe, clean schools. Sherri was not now, not ever, going to be ready for an internship in this hellhole.

dark image of Lynchburg Hospital

She was several weeks into her “Introduction to Mental Retardation” class, yet Sherri’s classmates were still strangers to her. No one else waiting with her to escort the ambulatory mentally retarded adult male residents [footnote 1] to the campus canteen showed any signs of the terror that Sherri was feeling. All the other students looked calm and composed while Sherri’s heart was beating out of her chest and her mind was racing with thoughts of how to extricate herself from this bad dream.

[Footnote 1: The descriptive term used today, more accurate and less pejorative, is “persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.”]

Sherri had chosen a college major requiring work with “special needs” individuals even though she had absolutely no experience with them–unless you count seeing a second cousin a couple times. This institution was a totally different setting than a cheerful, happy family reunion; or a pleasant, sunlit classroom full of colorful bulletin boards and cute, young children that she had envisioned. This hands-on experience was not what Sherri bargained for, nor where she ever imagined herself to be.

Lynchburg Training School was a big, bad, dark and scary place. The buildings were dreary and dirtier the closer one got. There were no flowers or landscaping to make the campus attractive or inviting, no curtains at the windows or welcome mats.

The class spent this morning listening to dull lectures describing the purpose and administration of this institution for the mentally retarded. They were treated to a late lunch in the otherwise empty dining hall. Briefly and from a distance, they glimpsed a group of male residents on a grassy field. It was not clear what they were doing. As the class walked from their dorm at the far end of the campus, a distant group of women were making their way to the dining hall. The morning, like the institution, was gray, sterile and lifeless.

Earlier this afternoon, the class had toured the numerous buildings on the campus. They visited offices, dayrooms, recreation rooms, the infirmary, dormitories and lots of hallways, mostly empty of people aside from a few staff members waiting to describe the work they did there. For most of the day, the few adult residents they saw were sitting alone in small groups. There were no games, no toys, no music, no TV—nothing to stimulate them, except their own hands. Otherwise, the tour appeared designed to visit areas where the adult residents had left or were not yet expected.

In the children’s dormitories, many beds were occupied by large baby beds equipped with heavy mesh across the top, reminding Sherri more of tiny cages than sleeping quarters. They visited classrooms, but none with children. Sherri wondered how much time each day the children spent in their cages.

Nothing in the institution felt clean or pleasant. Inside the buildings were dank with nasty smells invading every hallway and room they toured. The offensive odors reminded Sherri in turn of sour milk, garbage and unwashed, old people. There were locked doors everywhere. Attendants carried keys to unlock the doors, and Sherri was certain she even saw some with chains and padlocks. There were many places where the class was not allowed to enter; nor did they want to. The only evidence of residents in most areas was the distant sound of moaning and screaming. Everything here made Sherri uncomfortable.

Shadows of men walking

Her discomfort soon escalated to fear. Sherri made an unscheduled detour through an area that was not on the class tour, when she was left behind during a bathroom break. An aide, probably without authorization, helped Sherri catch-up to the tour by taking a short cut through a men’s dayroom, this one fully occupied. Following behind the aide, Sherri had to pass through thirty strange-looking men hanging around in a large, stark, overly illuminated room with hard, plastic chairs lining the walls. Staff members were safely separated from the men behind a glass barrier on one side of the room. Sherri found herself walking the gauntlet directly through the men. What seemed like wicked laughter and animal sounds erupted as she and the aide hurried down the line of chairs. To Sherri the men seemed big and threatening. All she could see were people who were dirty, drooling, with snot running out of their noses. Some were barefoot and bare chested. Many were rocking, sniffling or grunting. Sherri saw hands in pants, on exposed penises, in noses and mouths, hands reaching for her, hands rubbing her arm, grabbing at her clothes. The ammonia and urine smells were overwhelming and sickening and Sherri tried desperately to hold her breath. She was reeling with fear by the time the door closed behind her, and incredibly relieved to see her classmates in an otherwise empty hallway listening to the administrator drone on about the facility lay-out.

With the tour finally over, the class was again outside in fresh air. The feeling of fear from her short-cut remained and dread of what was to come grew as Sherri waited with her group to escort some residents to the canteen for ice cream—the last assignment of the day. Sherri did not want to see another resident. The thought of holding their hands, wiping their noses and chins, smelling their bodies, felt unbearable.

“Pick a resident and escort him to the canteen for ice cream,” were the instructions from the administrator who had led the college students to the side entrance where residents were expected to appear any minute. “A couple floor attendants will be joining you if you need any help; but these residents are yours for the next hour,” the administrator added, then left.

Sherri’s first thought was whether any of the men she had passed inside would be among those going for ice cream. Surely not; or please, at the very least, let them be clean and zipped up.

The door opened and out came the first man.

This resident, not introduced by the attendant, had a distant look in his eye and did not acknowledge Sherri or her classmates. He was disheveled, but cleaner than the men Sherri had passed by; his shirt and pants were buttoned and zipped. He was not happy. He immediately started hitting himself in the face and grumbling under his breath. This self abusive behavior was startling since Sherri expected the administration to select “safe” residents for the excursion. This guy was not safe. He was tall and strong and potentially violent. Sherri did not think she could control him.

To her relief, a classmate standing to her right, calmly pulled the resident’s arm away from his face, introduced herself, asked his name and guided him down the sidewalk. The resident stopped hitting himself instantly and went with the classmate. He seemed apprehensive but did not protest as the classmate quietly chatted with him as they walked away. An attendant walked casually behind them, unconcerned that more violent behavior might erupt.

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The man quieted so easily; Sherri wished she had chosen him before the classmate. At the same time, she frankly did not want to escort anyone. Taking a small step backward, Sherri was content to wait for another resident.

The parade of residents continued. Each looked unkempt, awkward or unsteady, and had nasty teeth. Sherri found herself repeatedly moving back into the group of classmates, painfully embarrassed, wondering if she was emotionally strong enough to pair up with a resident. Before long, she stood against over-grown bushes lining the sidewalk with nowhere else to go. Her efforts to quiet her nerves and quell her doubts were failing miserably. Her classmates’ lack of fear or discomfort only made Sherri’s uneasiness more disturbing. She even considered feigning illness and returning to the dorm.

Finally, to her dismay, Sherri was the only classmate left at the building entrance. The stream of residents seemed to have stopped though and Sherri wondered hopefully if she would be spared from escorting anyone.

But her hopes were dashed when out came a last resident just for her.

It was clear why he was last. This guy was small, kept his head down, mumbling; had little affect except fear of leaving the building. He reached for Sherri, clearly needing her support to proceed. It took effort and time to coax him off the curb. He squeezed Sherri’s hand tightly as he eventually took the step. Sherri’s fear and apprehension started to disappear as his need for help and her compassion took priority. His steps were uncertain and slow with jerks and tics in his arms and legs as he moved. Yet, he was walking. Sherri ignored his smell, his drool, the stained bib he wore, and her silent, useless lament that she should have picked the first resident out the door, or any other resident for that matter. She stayed focused solely on giving him the support he needed to make his way.

Within minutes, Sherri took a longer look at her resident. His determination and focus on walking impressed her. He was excited about the outing. As they made their way, Sherri encouraged his efforts and chatted about the day and what was in store. Her apprehension faded appreciably. She understood nothing he mumbled, but the attendant told her the resident’s name was Terrence and that he could not feed himself.

The two flavors of ice cream were vanilla and chocolate. Sherri ordered chocolate, despite the attendant’s suggestion that vanilla would be less messy. Terrence’s excitement sparked when she accepted the bowls of chocolate ice cream from the server and his efforts to get to his seat were pronounced.

Terrence’s features were not unpleasant. His eyes were expressive and especially engaging when he looked at Sherri. It was obvious from his lopsided smile that he was delighted with the first spoonfuls Sherri fed him, which made her laugh.

Since he had been able to reach for and squeeze her hand, Sherri decided he should be able to feed himself. She put the spoon in his hand; and Terrence dropped it on the table. Sherri quickly put the spoon back in his hand and squeezed his hand tightly around the spoon. This time, Terrence threw it across the table, where it clamored to the floor.

The attendant, shaking her head, handed Sherri a clean spoon, reminding her that Terrence couldn’t feed himself. Perhaps from naivete’ or eagerness to test behavior modification techniques the class had been studying, Sherri was determined to try. That strong toss of the spoon suggested to Sherri that if he wanted the ice cream badly enough, Terrence could feed himself.

Sherri put the clean spoon back in Terrence’s hand, holding her own hand firmly over his. Together they scooped ice cream onto the spoon and carried it to his mouth. He slowly moved the ice cream around in his mouth before swallowing. Again, with her hand over his, Sherri helped carry a spoonful of ice cream up to Terrence’s mouth and just as he was getting some ice cream on his lips, she let go. The spoon twisted in his hand and the glob of ice cream fell on his bib. Terrence scowled but held onto the spoon, waiting for Sherri to guide him again.

Instead, Sherri let go and began eating her own bowl of ice cream. As Terrence watched, she told him to eat just like she was doing. Sherri saw stubbornness rather than lack of ability as the reason why Terrence “could not feed himself.”

For an excruciatingly long minute, Terrence just watched Sherri eat. Then he awkwardly scooped every bite of ice cream toward or into his mouth, making a mess but finishing long before Sherri did. Sherri gave Terrence the rest of her own ice cream.

The attendant complimented Sherri’s success, but not very quietly told the other attendant that no one was going to that much trouble and that much mess every day. She heard something about “easy on a single hour of a single day.”

On the walk back to the men’s unit, Sherri felt relaxed for the first time since she got to the Training School. Terrence seemed tired but less apprehensive. His bib was filthy and probably permanently stained. On a whim, Sherri removed the paisley bandana that served as a belt on her blue jeans and replaced the cheap, childish bib with it. Terrence smiled and patted the cloth. Maybe he would enjoy the bright color against his institution grays. Maybe it would inspire the attendants to use something on him besides a bib. An added bonus — paisley hides stains.

As she headed back to the dorm, Sherri had much to reflect upon. Why had she been so afraid? She felt an odd mixture of shame and gratification; an unexpected affection for Terrence and his community; even an obligation, a duty, to serve this population. She was assigned to the non-ambulatory women’s unit for the next morning, to help them dress and go to breakfast. Sherri knew as she settled in for the night that next time, instead of backing away, she would step up.

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AFTERWORD

During the late 1960’s, a move for “deinstitutionalization” of individuals with intellectual disabilities began across the country. [footnote 2] Researchers and advocates found that “warehoused” residents lost or failed to learn skills they were otherwise capable of, such as simple acts of self-care or basic socialization. [footnote 3] Virginia’s efforts at deinstitutionalization did not begin until 1972; and were not underway seriously until the 1980’s. [footnote 4]

Even more significant findings of mistreatment and neglect in residential facilities across the country forced a reduction in residential admissions and a demand for states to develop plans to discharge residents to community-based care and treatment. Following a 3-year investigation started in 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice found that the Commonwealth of Virginia harmed patients in its training centers, by providing the residents with little to no interaction with those without disabilities; denying residents freedom of choice and independence; and sometimes subjecting residents to inappropriate physical or chemical restraint. [footnote 5] Lynchburg Training Center (called CVTC then) closed its doors for good in 2020. [footnote 6] Virginia’s compliance for full, appropriate care outside institutions under the DOJ’s Settlement Agreement is still unfulfilled. [footnote 7] In accordance with the DOJ’s Agreement and the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and spurred by community advocacy, the State continues serious efforts to provide appropriate supports for community living. [footnote 8]

In 1975 when this story takes place, however, the then-named Lynchburg Training School and Hospital was open, over-crowded and guilty of the findings that eventually fueled pressure toward deinstitutionalization and finally, closure.

This story is based on true events. The real-life Sherri (a fictional name) had a long and illustrious career serving the intellectually disabled community and contributed substantially to the deinstitutionalization of individuals with intellectual and developmental challenges. It is to her and her ability to see potential in all of us that I dedicate this story.

by Carol “CJ” Gravitt
Retired attorney; Juris Doctor and Master’s in Psychology degrees from University of Virginia;
Lecturer & Program coordinator in law & human rights education. 

Footnotes:

2 Deinstitutionalization of Persons with Developmental Disabilities: A Technical Assistance Report for Legislators, National Conference of State Legislatures (January 2000)
3 Johnson, M & Rhodes, R, Institutionalization: A Theory of Human Behavior and the Social Environment, Advances in Social Work, v.8, n.1, University of Indiana (2007)
4 Deinstitutionalization and Community Services, Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission Special Report (September 1979) www.jlarc.virginia.gov/pdfs/reports/Rpt23.pdf
5 www.asylumprojects.org/index.php/Virginia_State_Epileptic_Colony (2020)
6 www.dlcv.org/central-virginia-training-center-closes; Officials announce redevelopment plan for Central Virginia Training Center, WSET (10/1/2020)
7 Joint Filing of Complete Set of Agreed Compliance Indicators, US District Court, E.D., Civil Action No:3:12CV59-JAG (1/14/20) www.dbhds.virginia.gov-settlement-agreement
8 ADA, 28 CFR 35; 36 (1991, as amended); Deinstitutionalization: Unfinished Business, National Council on Disability Deinstitutionalization Toolkit (2012)

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