Normalization

                                            

 

Sitting in the Burger King on Wilson Avenue, drinking coffee and discussing important matters, Eddie once again bummed a Marlboro Light off of me. Just like he did two years ago in Dixon, where I first met him at the state facility. It was a residential institution for people with developmental disabilities, yet by both personal and clinical observations, Eddie appeared to be perfectly normal.

Plainly stated, Eddie’s family couldn’t deal with him. His father worked in the Chicago stockyards, supporting eight kids and an emotionally fragile wife. As a child, Eddie had uncontrollable tantrums; at least that’s what the court records indicated. I obtained access to these in my role as case manager for the Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The court placed Eddie in the Dixon State Mental Hospital in 1944 when he was five years old. Thirty-three years later, Eddie was about to be discharged and transitioned to the community. I had the responsibility of arranging a suitable living situation for him in Chicago.

In his more than three decades at Dixon, Eddie discovered a caring community among staff and fellow residents. Eventually his tantrums disappeared, yet his family in Chicago didn’t want him to return. The professional standards for these state facilities were lax until the mid-1960s, allowing Eddie to remain at Dixon although he had no condition that warranted his stay.

Eddie earned a little money doing assorted chores for the staff. Everyone found him to be a likable guy. He listened avidly to all the White Sox games on his transistor radio. He developed several close relationships with attending staff who treated him like a brother. His world at Dixon was comfortable and secure.

Then in 1976, Dixon, like all the rest of the state mental health facilities, had a mandate to deinstitutionalize its residents and to return them to their communities of origin. According to the policy makers, it was more cost-effective and adhered to the prevailing theory of normalization. The only fairly decent place that I could find for Eddie was a community living facility in Uptown on Wilson Avenue.   

A year later, I paid a visit to Eddie’s new home. The place was clean enough, although his shared room seemed rather small. He had a craving for onion rings, so I took him to Burger King where we could chat further. He told me how much he missed Dixon and the kind folks who were his friends there. Here in Uptown, he found the streets loud and dangerous and couldn’t establish any friendships at his new place. He felt like a stranger. To lighten the mood, I switched the conversation to the White Sox who were off to a great start in 1977. At least I knew that Eddie had the solace of his transistor radio to follow the surprising success of his favorite team.

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