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He survived 13 years of neglect and abuse, including sexual assault, at the notorious Pennhurst State School and Hospital outside Philadelphia before emerging as a champion for the disabled.
Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This latest installment is part of a series exploring how the Americans With Disabilities Act has shaped modern life for disabled people. Share your stories or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1958, when Roland Johnson was 12, his parents sent him to the Pennhurst State School and Hospital outside Philadelphia. There he would spend 13 tormented years living through the nightmare of institutionalization that was commonplace in mid-20th-century America.
Terrified and confused, Roland, who had an intellectual disability, quickly discovered the inhumane realities of Pennhurst, including neglect, beatings and sexual assault. And as a Black child, he encountered the toxic racism roiling life both outside and within the institution’s walls.
“After that long ride up there, it was just horrible,” Johnson wrote of his arrival at Pennhurst in a posthumously published autobiography, “Lost in a Desert World” (2002, with Karl Williams). He described himself as having been “lost and lonely,” as if “in a desert world.”
“I thought I would be there forever,” he added.
But Johnson did get out, and would see his family again. More remarkably, he would survive a prolonged and difficult transition to the outside world and emerge as a pioneering champion for the disabled. Through speeches across the country and in courtroom testimony, he played a significant part in the shutting down of Pennhurst in 1987. He also assisted in the release of countless people from other state institutions. By demonstrating that the developmentally disabled could speak up for themselves, he was at the forefront of an emerging self-advocacy movement that would take hold in the Philadelphia area in the 1970s.