Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights

By (author) Dennis B. Downey, James W. Conroy Foreword by Dick Thornburgh, Ginny Thornburgh

Hardback - £27.95

Publication date:

22 June 2020

Length of book:

288 pages


Penn State University Press

ISBN-13: 9780271086033

Conceived in the era of eugenics as a solution to what was termed the “problem of the feeble-minded,” state-operated institutions subjected people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to a life of compulsory incarceration. One of nearly 300 such facilities in the United States, Pennhurst State School and Hospital was initially hailed as a “model institution” but was later revealed to be a nightmare, where medical experimentation and physical and psychological abuse were rampant. At its peak, more than 3,500 residents were confined at Pennhurst, supervised by a staff of fewer than 600.

Using a blended narrative of essays and first-person accounts, this history of Pennhurst examines the institution from its founding during an age of Progressive reform to its present-day exploitation as a controversial Halloween attraction. In doing so, it traces a decades-long battle to reform the abhorrent school and hospital and reveals its role as a catalyst for the disability rights movement. Beginning in the 1950s, parent-advocates, social workers, and attorneys joined forces to challenge the dehumanizing conditions at Pennhurst. Their groundbreaking advocacy, accelerated in 1968 by the explosive televised exposé Suffer the Little Children, laid the foundation for lawsuits that transformed American jurisprudence and ended mass institutionalization in the United States. As a result, Pennhurst became a symbolic force in the disability civil rights movement in America and around the world.

Extensively researched and featuring the stories of survivors, parents, and advocates, this compelling history will appeal both to those with connections to Pennhurst and to anyone interested in the history of institutionalization and the disability rights movement.

“The singular importance of Pennhurst—to people with disabilities, American history, and humanity’s long arc toward justice—cannot be overstated. Wisely, brilliantly, the editors of this multilayered and illuminating book chose to tell the tale of this one place in a way that encompasses all it epitomized, from eminent physicians urging tragic beliefs to the flesh and blood individuals who lived with (and loved amidst) the consequences, from the brave reporters who exposed the concealed and the cruel to the dogged advocates who battled for rights and freedom. Even the ghastly misuse of the site in our own time—as infuriating as it is emblematic—is laid bare. I wish every politician with a conscience, indeed, every person with a heart and a soul, would pick up this book. A compelling feat of truth-telling, it is essential reading for all.”

—Rachel Simon, author of Riding the Bus with My Sister and The Story of Beautiful Girl