Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Disability Rights Pioneer Dennis Haggerty Dies at 85

HaggertyDennis Haggerty, a special-needs education advocate and a catalyst in the enactment of Pennsylvania's Right to Education law, died last week at 85. Haggerty was a lawyer and a parent of a special needs child in the 1960s. One of his sons was developmentally disabled and, because Pennsylvania state law then barred children who had "not attained a mental age of five years" from enrolling in the first grade, Haggerty briefly enrolled his 8-year-old son at the now-infamous Pennhurst State School and Hospital.

While his son was at the institution, Haggerty discovered Pennhurst's overcrowded and filthy conditions, that students were being abused, and the institution was more of a warehouse than a school. To convince the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens (PARC, now called Arc of Pennsylvania) to file a class action suit on behalf of Pennhurst's residents, Haggerty impersonated a doctor and clandestinely photographed the conditions. Haggerty later said that he was most affected by talking with a mother who was told that her son had died in a shower accident a year earlier. Haggerty had once seen cuts on his own son and had been given the same shower accident explanation. A skeptical Haggerty convinced authorities to conduct an autopsy of the woman's son. The autopsy revealed that the son actually died in an unreported fire at Pennhurst. Armed with his pictures and stories, Haggerty galvanized PARC to sue the state and to expose the conditions at the school. NBC's 1968 documentary of Pennhurst, Suffer the Little Children, boosted that effort.

The class action lawsuit, PARC v. Pennsylvania, 334 F. Supp. 1257 (E.D. Pa. 1971) ended in a consent decree requiring the state to provide free public education to developmentally disabled children. Using Brown v. Bd. of Education as a template, PARC v. Pennsylvania sparked a deinstitutionalization case that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in Pennhurst State Sch. and Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89 (1984). The consent decree in PARC v. Pennsylvania left another legacy: the consent decree's language became the model for what is now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Haggerty later served as a consultant for the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation beginning with President Lyndon B. Johnson to President William Clinton. Haggerty donated his papers to Temple University's Institute on Disabilities' Visionary Voices archives, saying, “When you don’t like a system it is possible to change it, and I would like my papers available to those who have an interest in changing the system.” Read more here.



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