Peter Blanck featured in Providence Journal - Inside Story: A champion for people with disabilities calls for further reform

June 24, , 2019

By G. Wayne Miller - Providence Journal Staff Writer

Peter Blanck, who heads the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, talks with “Story in the Public Square” about his organization’s global efforts to improve the lives of people living with disabilities.

With Rhode Island recently marking the 25th anniversary of the closing of the Ladd Center, the state’s former institution for people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the half-hour we spent with this week’s guest on “Story in the Public Square” was particularly relevant. Not to mention informative and inspirational.

Peter Blanck is University Professor at Syracuse University and chairman of the school’s Burton Blatt Institute, arguably the foremost center of its kind in America. It is named for the man who wrote the game-changing 1966 book “Christmas in Purgatory” and went on to become a pioneer in what the center calls “humanizing services” for people living with disabilities.

Blanck is a modest man, and on our show, he described the center and its expanding missions matter-of-factly, if with pride:

“We have grown phenomenally, with offices in New York City, and Washington, and Atlanta, and Kentucky, and Syracuse, of course, and working all over the world,” Blanck said.

“Essentially, we follow Burton Blatt’s main principle, which is written about in [“Christmas in Purgatory”] that each person has value. We look cross-disability. We look over the life course, and we focus on ways in which we can help support — through policy and research — the inclusion of people with disabilities in all civic, social and economic activities.

“Most people with disabilities are poor and live in poverty. Most people with disabilities today lack employment. So we have large-scale programs, for example, on financial literacy, on economic security, on helping people be more involved, self-determined in making their own decisions about their lives to the maximum extent possible.”

Blanck spoke of the movement that led to closing Ladd and many similar institutions where abuse and neglect were common, and to the landmark law that advanced rights.

“The fires of reform were lit,” he said. “In the late 1980s, people with disabilities for the first time came together — advocates, to try to understand if disability rights could be thought of in a similar way as African-American rights, as sexual-orientation rights, as rights for women.

“Thanks to the leadership of many senators and really bipartisan efforts, the Americans with Disabilities Act was born in 1990, which was the first major comprehensive law in the world, really, that looked at employment, public services, telecommunications, living in the community.”

So where are we today?

In a better place than decades ago — but not where we should be, according to Blanck.

“It’s a very complicated question because today we have, of course, terrific issues of homelessness, terrific issues of health-care coverage, terrific issues of incarceration,” Blanck said.

He described his involvement with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent look at Alabama prisons, which found that almost half of the system’s inmates “have some form of mental disability. Prisons have become, essentially, the institutions of old.”

According to Blanck, some 60 million to 75 million people in the U.S. live with “severe disabilities,” and globally “there are about a billion people” living with disabilities. Their rights were advanced with the 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities treaty, which has been signed by 177 nations — but not the U.S.

President Barack Obama signed the treaty, Blanck said, “but the Senate did not ratify it for an array of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with disability but have to do with signing of treaties in general. Personally, I think it’s a missed opportunity because we can all learn a lot together. Nonetheless, the CRPD is moving forward, and more and more countries are being involved. It guarantees human rights of employment, accessibility to information, government services, capacity before the law, and a whole host of other areas.”

Did I mention that in addition to his formal expertise, Blanck is a compelling storyteller? He is. Tune in to hear some of his uplifting experiences involving people living with disabilities.

“Story in the Public Square” airs on Rhode Island PBS in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.; the coast-to-coast broadcast schedule is at http://bit.ly/2ShlY5E An audio version airs Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., Sundays at 4:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. on SiriusXM’s P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), Channel 124.