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  • Writer's pictureDavid Stanley

Life is a tougher journey for some...

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

In 2015, our Music Man Project students performed a musical called “From the Asylum to the Palladium”. They told the journey of their people, from isolation as sick patients in mental hospitals to care in the community and the opportunities available today. Premiered at the West End’s London Palladium, it was a stark reminder of the struggle faced by people with learning disabilities over decades.

100 years ago, millions of people endured a terrifying journey across oceans on steam-powered ships in search of a better life in America. As many as 2000 immigrants squeezed into the long narrow compartments where there was little privacy, no toilets and the air became rank with the odour of spoiled food, seasickness and unwashed bodies. On arrival, the harbour was choked with 20,000 passengers waiting to disembark.

It was worth it for most. Glimpsing the Statue of Liberty through the mist had signalled the end of their journey and a new start in the land of possibilities. As usual though, for people with a disability, the journey didn’t end, and the land of possibilities didn’t apply to them.

All immigrants (or ‘Aliens’ as they were officially known) were observed for coughs, shuffles or limps as the line moved up the steep flight of stairs into the great hall of the Registry Room. The inspection process had begun. Children were asked their names to check if they were deaf or dumb. Young infants taken from the arms of their mother and made to walk. As the line moved forward, doctors only had a few seconds to make their judgment. The insane, mentally impaired, disabled or any Alien deemed a burden on society were to be denied entry by law.

In 2017, we performed our second Palladium musical called “The Label”, based on the book by Caroline White. It was a moving reflection on how a child is labelled with having a disability, which then limits their potential. The mother dreams of her baby without a label and the baggage that goes with it.

Back in New York, medics physically labelled 2 out of 10 immigrants with codes to indicate further inspection was required in a process known as weeding out. ‘Feeble minds’ were marked with an X and taken for mental examination and questioning. Their behaviour, attitude, problem-solving and decision making were carefully observed. During this time, many were detained in long narrow rooms that each slept three hundred people in triple tiered bunks. Aliens diagnosed with illness were sent to the Ellis Island Hospital, which included a psychopathic ward and a morgue. One doctor described it as “at once a maternity ward and an insane asylum”. During half a century of operation over 3,500 immigrants died on Ellis Island, including 1,400 children.

If they passed the medical inspection, immigrants were subject to a rapid-fire series of questions. The interrogation was over in minutes after which they were either permitted to enter the United States or detained for a legal hearing. Those that failed or whose ailments were incurable or disabling were sent back to their ports of origin, often separated from their families.

Ellis Island is known as both the Isle of Hope and the Isle of Tears. Although only 2% of the arrivals were sent back, this translated to over 1,000 exclusions a month for half a century.

As my tourist ferry sped away past the dark ruins of Ellis Island hospital, I glanced up and noticed a familiar sign above one of the seats next to the door:

Priority seating for persons with disabilities or less able to stand

Read the final Churchill Fellowship report here.

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