This week’s must-read is a devastating article in the Times about the exploitation of several men with cognitive disabilities who, until recently, lived in Atalissa, Iowa. These men were brought to Iowa from Texas institutional facilities decades ago to work in a turkey processing plant. The company boarded the men in an abandoned schoolhouse and paid them $65 dollars per month to work long hours doing dangerous work that left many of them with serious health problems. At the schoolhouse, they lived in squalor and were treated like children by the live-in supervisor and frequently abused and neglected. They were never given a choice as to where they might live or what other work they might want to do. This mistreatment continued for years despite family members and town residents asking the state to investigate the matter.
The disability rights movement has accomplished a great deal, but like most civil rights movements, its victories have not been evenly distributed. The true scope of the abuse these men suffered was not discovered until 2009. Several townspeople quoted in the article suspected something might be wrong, but said nothing. Some of that can be attributed to plan old Midwestern reticence, but it can also be attributed to the unconscious marginalization of these men because of their disabilities. Nobody intervened because nobody really wanted much to do with these guys. And those attitudes persist far beyond Atalissa’s borders.