I’m taking a class this semester called Disability Policy and Services. In last week’s first session we saw the documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, an expose of the dehumanizing treatment of institutionalized persons with disabilities.

We were asked to write a summary response to the documentary. While the film precipitated the world’s attention to the plight of those who were institutionalized, I couldn’t help feeling really uncomfortable about watching the documentary.

The words I wrote in my notebook immediately after the film include: exploited, victimized, re-victimized, hopeless, helpless, sensationalized.

As much as I understand that Geraldo Rivera’s expose did SO much to bring attention to the disgraceful treatment of those institutionalized at Willowbrook and other institutions, the first thought that ran through my mind as the cameras panned on the naked, dirty residents was whether the film was exploiting these residents once again, for the purpose of journalism. Did they have consent? Could they even have elicited consent? Would I want my family member, naked and dirty and running through an institution be filmed for the whole nation and world to see? I understand that the purpose was to highlight how awful the living conditions (if you can call it that) were, but I felt viscerally that they were still portrayed as inhuman.

I am all for the use of journalism to highlight inequity; I just wish it didn’t also sometimes exploit the very persons they are claiming to respect. One more thought – I guess what I’m asking is, to what extent is it justifiable to exploit the vulnerable? We might say the ends justified the means…but that makes me really uncomfortable…I’d love other people’s thoughts about this.

Below is the trailer for the documentary.


4 thoughts on “Does the benefit of an exposé outweigh ethical problems?

  1. I feel very uncomfortable about it and would ask myself exactly the same questions. When I work, at the back of my mind is that thought ‘would I want to be treated this way’ and I honestly don’t think, as you said, I would want all human dignity to be stripped away and exposed.
    I would feel less uncomfortable, I think about a written expose but it is the film that created the power of horror (I suspect).

    1. Yes, exactly – there is something about the way this documentary was filmed that made the residents of Willowbrook look like animals in a zoo…yes, the point was to show how de-humanized they were, but to do that by de-humanizing them again?

      I agree that reading about it seems different to me. But why? Is it the immediacy of the visual form that bothers me, or can the written description be just as troublesome. Actually, I just answered myself when writing this out. I have absolutely read articles that I felt were just as exploitative. I will be a happy person if I never have to read another article about orphans in foreign countries playing in dirty courtyards, sitting in their own feces or wearing tattered clothes (or even worse, are naked).

      1. I think with the written word it is easier to hide individuals that is impossible in a film by its very nature. Words can create an equally powerful response.
        I suppose the question is – why do we, as humans, need to be horrified into action? Can’t we act without these kinds of stimuli? or without having to cause the victims of abuse to loss their dignity further.. I know, it’s a rhetorical question…

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