“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Do severely cognitively disabled people sin?

During the 1970's there was a dramatic move across the US to close the institutions for persons with mental retardation. Fueled by photographs by Burton Blatt, and video by Geraldo Rivera, the nation became aroused and the clients were exited to smaller facilities. It was at that time (1978) that I worked for about a year at an intermediate care facility in Eastern Pennsylvania called Pine Hill. Pine Hill received many persons who had been residents of Pennhurst, one of the institutions with a deplorable reputation.

The question of sinfulness, or maybe just plain bad behavior, at least the potential for bad behavior became real to me at that place at that time.

I met the first person in my life who was self abusive, and wondered about her. Were the punches, I mean jarring punches, which she delivered to her own face wrong? I wanted her to stop, obviously, but was her behavior wrong or sin?

I remember a fellow who used to dig into his diaper and smear his feces on the wall every morning and I wondered whether that was bad behavior or evil. Judging by the feces in his hair, on his face, in his mouth, he sure seemed to be having a good time. One time he was flipping his hands in the manner that many persons with autism will, and feces flipped off his fingers and onto the staff member who was in charge of working with him (feeding, showering, etc.). I was surprised at the indignancy of the worker, assuming that the man deliberately threw the feces at him.

But the most poignant memory I have is of a woman with severe mental retardation who was being fed on her back because of the severity of her physical disability. On one occasion, while being fed on her back, she choked, sputtered and spit at her case worker, and was verbally punished, and nearly a month later was placed in "solitary" for a couple of days, also for the spitting behavior. To me, she had obviously not done anything wrong. But to her case worker she had been a bad girl, or perhaps a bad woman.

I want to occasionally touch on this issue, that is the intention of behaviors by persons with severe disability in an attempt to understand how behavioral intentionality in these individuals is often characterized, how it might be interpreted, and what implications we might draw about the spiritual condition of persons with severe disability.

More to come.


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