i go home is a one-hour documentary chronicling the journey from institution to inclusion for people with intellectual disability. The title of the documentary honors a man with intellectual disability who was institutionalized as a child. When Nancy Thaler, Pennsylvania’s Deputy Secretary for the Office of Developmental Programs, met him inside the institution he could say only three words. Those three words were, “i go home?” That young man did eventually go home. He was adopted by Nancy Thaler.
Imagine living somewhere you didn’t choose. Being told you can’t love – or leave. For decades that was reality for people with intellectual disability. Parents who had a child with intellectual disability were commonly advised to send their child away to an institution – that it was best for the child, the family and the community. Institutions were often set away from the rest of the world and, for the most part, what happened inside their walls was a mystery to the rest of us.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that a television expose shed light on the conditions inside a Pennsylvania institution called the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, originally known as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. What the viewers saw made it impossible for them to look away. The media coverage fueled parents to stand up and demand better for their children with intellectual disability. It ignited change in Pennsylvania–and across the nation.
Almost three years ago, a group called the Pennsylvania Coalition Honoring People with Disability came to WITF with that story. It was their desire to increase society’s awareness of the heroic journey of Pennsylvanians with intellectual disability and their contribution to American life.
It was the perfect fit for WITF, because of a heretofore link to WITF’s own history. In the Bureau of Archives and History (Pennsylvania’s state archives), we discovered a mid-1960s black and white 16 mm film called Somebody Touched Me: The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. The film was narrated by the actor Henry Fonda and its end credits described it as “a WITF Film Production, Hershey, PA, supported by a Social and Rehabilitation Service Grant from the Division of Mental Retardation for Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Health Improvement Program.” In addition to its subject of children with mental disabilities, the film depicted life in the Pennhurst Hospital, revealing its kindly-intended but nonetheless damaging treatment of its patients.
Spurred on by this connection. WITF spent more than two years researching the oppression of people with intellectual disability. More than 20 on-camera interviews were conducted. Interviewees included people with intellectual disability, authors, researchers, scientists, attorneys, journalists, musicians, politicians, house parents, advocates, parents, siblings, professors, historians, social workers and more. The result was more than 40 hours of footage, some of which included a journey back to the now abandoned Pennsylvania institution that once caused pain for so many. The voices of those who lived and breathed this history are the only voices present in WITF’s i go home, the most important of which are the voices of people with intellectual disability.
With these elements–the contemporaneous Pennhurst film, footage from the TV news expose from a few years later and our own extensive reporting–WITF was able to tell an important story in context and with compassion, and to reach out to Pennsylvanians by means in addition to broadcast distribution. The 60-minute documentary premiered on WITF in April 2016; seven interstitials (short-format programs) were also produced and aired in the fall of 2016.