Willowbrook School was an institution for the mentally and physically handicapped back when segregation was in full swing in America. Parents who had children with disabilities such as Down Syndrome were advised by doctors, priests and the community at large to place their kids in the care of institutions such as these. In 1972, Geraldo Rivera, at that time just a promising local reporter, did an undercover expose of the place. His cameras revealed children sitting naked in the dark, surrounded by their own feces, staring blankly and with hopeless eyes past the camera.
The film catches up with several individuals who were residents of Willowbrook, and their families. It was fascinating to hear the story from siblings' perspectives, and gave me a new compassion for, and understanding of, families who institutionalized their children during this time period.
Luis, who had some sort of physical handicap, used a walker when at home as a child. After being placed in Willowbrook by his Puerto Rican immigrant mother, he lost his mobility and now has little to no gross motor control. The story of his caring older brother, who acted as translator for his mother on their weekly visits to the school, is moving and beautiful, and you fall in love with Luis' unquenchable personality.
You first meet Sal in an interview with Geraldo back in '72 at Willowbrook. He was mistakenly diagnosed as mentally retarded, but only has a form of Cerebral Palsy. His story is heart wrenching and inspiring, as he gives a voice to all the residents of Willowbrook who might not be able to articulate the experience for themselves. Sal describes living in the school as similar to life in a concentration camp, and when asked if better things are down the road for him, responds, "Damn straight!"
As difficult as these images are to watch, they foster anew a compassion, understanding and empathy for individuals with disabilities and their families. 'Unforgotten' is an inspiring story of familial love, and the triumph of the human spirit. A must see, and important reminder of where we have come from as a society.