Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Freedom to Shop

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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One of the buildings at Partlow State School (photo by Naaman Fletcher)

Finding Appropriate Care

At the time of the Wyatt v. Stickney case, there were “over 3,000 residents living in overcrowded and inhumane conditions who had no legal alternative.”(1) Many of those residents were rather high functioning mildly retarded people who were even used by the mental health system to help run the institution. As Dorothy has recounted, they were called upon to help with the care of many of the severely handicapped residents and were enlisted to do the washing, cleaning, and cooking alongside employees and always without pay. Those at the "Boy's Colony" did the agricultural work that brought in income to the institution.(2)  It was these residents who surely knew that they were being denied options in life that they wanted to take part in.

On the other hand there were the severely handicapped residents who were warehoused and abused at the hands of poorly trained employees supervising the “high-grade” residents who participated in the care of the “low-grade” residents. In those days, parents of severely handicapped children were routinely advised by medical professionals that institutional care was the best option for their children, not realizing the detrimental warehousing conditions of those very institutions.

When I was Program Director at the St. Andrew’s Foundation, part of my duties included gathering information about new residents coming into our group homes. I will never forget the conversations I had with parents, almost always mothers, about their adult children with developmental disabilities. On one occasion, a mother described how she had been assured by the doctor that Partlow was the right place for her eight-year-old son, and how she watched as a staff person took her son’s hand and lead him away on the day he was admitted. My own daughter was around five years old at the time. I thought of how I could not bear to think of placing her, with her normal coping skills in some institution away from home, yet so many who lacked those very skills, were routinely institutionalized “for their own good.” We cannot minimize the hardships faced by parents of children with developmental disabilities. As a society we must offer resources to help. We must not, however, resort to insufficient means of caring for those children and their families.

Adventures in Shopping

Dorothy Burdette loved to shop, perhaps more than any other activity. When talking about her experiences at Partlow State School in juxtaposition to her life outside the institution, shopping was often the big comparison in her mind. At Partlow there was no freedom to leave the campus, no freedom to make decisions, no freedom to shop. Here are some of Dorothy’s adventures in shopping when she was finally able to leave the institution.

Dorothy Burdette
“Robbie worked at the group home. He made me mad one time. He said, ‘You owe me a cup of coffee, and I gave you a ten dollar bill.’ I said, ‘I didn’t ask for no money from you Robbie and furthermore, I don’t owe you no coffee! You owe me some!’ And later on he did get me a cup of coffee.

“What happened was, he took me to get something for my birthday, and he wouldn’t let me get it. It made me mad with him.  It turned out I didn’t have enough money – I was ten dollars short. We ended up going to Woolworth’s and getting some coffee.”

 “[When I needed to go shopping] I used to go downtown by myself half the time. I remember one time I went with Jim when he worked there. I got some of them week day panties and some of those soup labels – they used to make them like what came on Campbell’s Soup cans- and I got some of them. Cathy said they were for little bitty young ‘uns and I didn’t have any sense getting things that were not big enough for me. She told me I didn’t know how to buy the right size. It made me mad, and I told her, she didn’t know what I didn’t have, and I’d get what I wanted to and it wasn’t none of her business.”

 “I liked to make my own decisions about what I bought. When I was at Partlow, we couldn’t go out shopping, and we couldn’t make decisions about the clothes we wore or the things we bought. For our clothes, they would order cloth for the sewing room, then they would sew it into clothes and give ‘em to us. They had different staff that would come in and sew.”

 “Once I was at the group home, I went several times to shop and Cathy would always get mad. She’d say, ‘You always go off and leave us – you don’t wait for us.’ I’d get my cart and away I’d go. She said, ‘Can’t nobody keep up with you, you don’t wait on nobody.’ Usually they would take about two or three of us at a time when we went out shopping. I always went with who I wanted to. I didn’t much care for Cathy, she had a hot temper.”
“I liked the food better [at the group home] that at Partlow, and I liked that I could go with the group home staff to do the grocery shopping.”

“I remember my first Christmas in Birmingham. In the group home, we would go out to do Christmas shopping and to look at all the Christmas lights.”


References cited:

1. The Legacy of Wyatt ,
2. Penley, Gary, Della Raye: A Girl Who Grew Up in Hell and Emerged Whole (2002). Pelican Publishing, p. 71.


  • The photo from Partlow State School was taken by Naaman Fletcher years after the institution was closed down. Naaman's photos are featured on his blog What's Left of Birmingham at .
  • The photo of Dorothy was taken about the time she left Partlow. It was one she kept on her dresser in her apartment.

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