Involuntary Servitude:- The Thirteenth Amendment, a milestone in the fight against slavery and involuntary servitude, was passed in 1865. However, its protection did not extend to people with developmental disabilities until nearly a century later. This article explores the dark history of involuntary servitude imposed on individuals with developmental and physical disabilities, highlighting the struggles they faced within state-run institutions and the efforts to overcome this form of exploitation.
The Institutional System: A Breeding Ground for Involuntary Servitude
For centuries, individuals with developmental and physical disabilities found themselves confined to state-run institutions. These facilities, housing thousands of residents, often compelled inhabitants to perform unpaid or minimally paid labor in roles such as housekeeping, laundry, maintenance, and institutional farming. The rationale behind this system was to maintain self-sufficiency, using the residents as an unpaid labor force to sustain the institutions.
While some residents acquired skills that could potentially enable them to work in the community, the prevailing belief at the time was that individuals with developmental disabilities were incapable of living independently. Even those who secured jobs outside the institution were mandated to return at the end of each day. Paradoxically, having a good work record served to prolong an individual’s time within the institution.
Residential institutions emerged as the largest employer of people with disabilities during the majority of the 20th century. Dr. F. Lewis Bartlett, a psychiatrist with extensive experience in state-run institutions during the 1960s, expressed the grim reality: “State hospitals need ‘good patients’ who are useful, valuable and expediently indispensable. But these patients, instead of being helped…are doomed by the institutional needs of the state mental hospital.”
Financial Constraints and Exploitation
By the 1960s, these residential facilities faced severe financial challenges, with many staff members earning poverty-level salaries. Staff shortages were rampant, with one study estimating a 30% vacancy rate in staff positions. The cost of replacing unpaid or minimally paid resident labor with paid workers was deemed financially overwhelming.
A telling example comes from a 1964 Minnesota study, which revealed that half of the 6,350 residents in the state’s institutions were assigned jobs, restricted by a law stating that a person with a developmental disability could not earn more than $1 a month.
The report estimated that replacing institutionalized resident workers with civil service employees would necessitate over 900 additional positions at a cost of $2.4 million. This example of “involuntary servitude” would eventually see change, spurred in part by advocacy groups like the Arc Minnesota, and individuals like Dr. David Vail and Governor Karl Rolvaag, who decried the revealed “institutional peonage.”
The National Spotlight on Involuntary Servitude
The issue of involuntary servitude gained national attention in July 1964 when F. Lewis Bartlett authored an article for The Atlantic Monthly titled “Institutional Peonage: Our Exploitation of Mental Patients.” The article exposed how patients were denied training and therapy to force them into performing the essential work that kept the institution operational.
The journey to overcome the legacy of involuntary servitude faced by people with developmental disabilities within state-run institutions is a testament to the resilience of advocacy efforts. The exploitation embedded in the institutional system, fueled by financial constraints and societal misconceptions, needed national exposure to prompt change.
Acknowledging the past is crucial in fostering a compassionate and inclusive society. By understanding the historical context of involuntary servitude, we can better appreciate the strides made toward dismantling exploitative practices and advancing the rights and dignity of individuals with developmental disabilities. Today, ongoing efforts in advocacy and awareness continue to shape a more equitable future, free from the shadows of institutional peonage.