More than 30 years ago, a furniture storeowner from Prairie du Chien came to the state government with a request and an offer of help. Donald Knapp’s simple request was for the state to provide support that would enable his daughter Lori to return home. At the time, Lori was living in the state institution in Chippewa Falls then named the Northern Wisconsin Colony and Training School. In return, Mr. Knapp offered to create a home for other children who were living at the “Colonies” because of a lack of services in their communities.
The state accepted Knapp’s offer. In August 1972, Lori Knapp and seven other children returned home, initiating a reform in the way Wisconsin provides support to its children and adults with disabilities. Governor Doyle’s budget should be seen as a continuation of that reform since it includes the long overdue proposal to end the long-term placement of people with disabilities at Northern Wisconsin Center for the Developmentally Disabled.
Northern Wisconsin Center opened at the end of the 19th century. Back then there was no government support available for children and adults with learning difficulties or other disabilities. Our schools did not provide an education to children who had “mental retardation.” Our health care professionals were leading a tragic eugenics movement that intended, in the words of Northern Center’s first superintendent, “to purge society and obstruct the increase of feeblemindedness.” This misguided policy resulted in the sterilization of almost 1,900 “inmates” at the Chippewa Falls institution between 1913 and 1963.
We have come a long way since then. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of parents such as Donald and Betty Knapp and so many others, a strong parent advocacy effort in the 1960s and early 1970s led to legislation and funding for education and services for people with disabilities. In 1973, the Legislature appropriated funds to enable Wisconsin counties to develop community services for the developmentally disabled. In 1974, a law was passed requiring and enabling, for the first time, all children to receive an education in our public schools.