Dorothy's story: 'Remarkable woman' overcomes social limits and attitudes
Dorothy Anderson talks first of the barred windows and day-old cereal. Then memories of her years living in state institutions flood back.
"When you're in the institution, there's not much to do. You're locked up and you can't wear your own clothes, and no shoes on your feet. You gotta go barefooted," said Anderson, a striking, silver-haired woman whose memory reflects six decades of changing attitudes toward persons with developmental disabilities.
Hers is a story of life in and out of state hospitals, a cautionary tale. She tells it lest society forget what life in state hospitals was like years ago.
"I don't want to go through that life again. I don't think anybody would," she said recently at the Chisago Lakes Achievement Center, the place she comes weekdays. At day's end, she goes home to a house in nearby Lindstrom that she shares with five others and her precious cat, Alex.
Dorothy Anderson talks about living in an institution
But it wasn't always so. Once, she slept in wards lined with many beds and as many females but few blankets. "They usually just gave us sheets," she said.
"She's a remarkable woman," said Alan Olson, director of the achievement center. "Think of her spirit, what life dealt her. She has taken it and is so positive and accepting."
Indeed. Anderson was born 63 years ago at what was then called the Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded in Faribault, where her unmarried mother had been committed. She never knew her father.
As a 7-month-old child, she became a ward of the state and spent childhood in a licensed St. Paul boarding home living with a foster mother she spoke of fondly. At 5, she had her first epileptic seizure. She was 7 when educators, though calling her conscientious and cooperative, decided she had learned all she was capable of learning. She proved them wrong.
As an adult, she learned to read, thanks to Susan Wehrenberg, program director at the center, who found her a tutor. Now she likes reading "Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Of her teen years, she says, "I don't remember having anyone that really took care of me, not a special person I could go to." Staff was OK, except for one woman who carried a big stick and sometimes used it for discipline. "They fired her," Anderson said.
If she didn't finish her food at one meal, it would be served cold the next.
She remembers the hours stretched long. "All we did was sit in the day room and watch TV." As a young adult, she folded laundry, set tables, washed dishes, cleaned rooms and cared for babies.
She remembers a girl named Lucille. "We were good friends, and we helped each other out."
After the state hospitals, as part of the de-institutionalizing process, Anderson moved to group homes. She had some problems adjusting to life outside. Her records say she "ran away," though she denies it. She had some anger issues, as well.
Living in the community was frightening to her at first, said Wehrenberg, who's known Anderson for 34 years. "She didn't know what it was like to be in a family, in a house, in a car."
Some would say Anderson has mental retardation, but she doesn't care for those words. They are too close to the dread epithet "retard."
"I don't like it. We can do just as much as a regular person. We might be slow in some things, but that does not mean we can't get a job and do things."
Anderson is retired now from her job at a pet store, where she worked part time for a while caring for dogs and cats, and from jobs through the center, where she's been coming since 1973. For years, she joined crews of center workers cleaning tables in school cafeterias and rooms in nursing homes. She earned her salary based on her productivity.
Now retired, she spends her days going on field trips, doing puzzles and math worksheets or sewing quilts.
Weekends, she may bowl with a Special Olympics team or walk to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Sometimes, she plain likes staying home to make chili or her favorite potato salad with "just a little" mustard.
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For a comprehensive history of the disabilities movement, including photographs and video, check out the Minnesota Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities, especially "Parallels in Time," "Parallels in Time II" and "With an Eye to the Past."