When you have an IQ below 30, a nervous system so poorly organized that you cannot chew or swallow, and a vocabulary that's limited to a tongue click, learning can amount to this:
Danny lies on a mat, his eyes fixed in a far-off gaze that, to a stranger, looks both sweet and vacant. To his left, a blinking light dances across a twisted filament in a jazzy, helter-skelter pattern that causes visitors to stop and watch with interest.
Danny's teacher hopes he will find it interesting, too, and will turn his head to watch. It's the type of purposeful reaction that, for Danny, would represent a huge leap in his education. But Danny is still looking the other way. Says Joanne Campbell, his teacher at the Great Oaks Center in Calverton: "If he ever gets past this, the next thing would be to have him respond to his name. If he responds, he would move his head."
Danny, say his care-givers, has made strides at Great Oaks, a sprawling institution in Prince George's County that is home to 250 mentally retarded people. He recognizes certain people and projects a warmth that has made him a favorite among the staff. And while he cannot speak a word, he draws people toward him by clicking his tongue.
Such strides infuse the staff with a sense of pride and purpose. But a stinging critique of Great Oaks by the U.S. Department of Justice has rekindled a long-standing debate over the quality of life for profoundly retarded people in Maryland's institutions, with some advocates arguing that the centers should not even exist.
It is a debate that has bitterly divided parents who care equally for their children but have come to different conclusions about what's best for them.
On one side, many parents and professionals say that centers like Great Oaks by their very nature stunt development and deprive people of the basic right to live in society. They insist that the state should move quickly to close its five institutions and place the 1,100 people who live in them in supervised group homes that offer greater comfort and privacy.
"There's no way in hell I'd put my son in an institution," said Lorraine M. Sheehan, the president of the Maryland Association for Retarded Citizens (ARC), whose retarded son, John, lives in a group home. The association has called on the state health department to close its institutions within five years and to move to a system of community care.
"In an institution, you don't have the freedom to get up and get an apple out of the refrigerator, to decorate the room in any way they want," she said. "It's just not normal living. Just because people learn slowly doesn't mean they can't appreciate having some control over their lives."
Equally vehement are parents like Anne Jones, whose 43-year-old son, Gary, fell into a depression during a brief stay in a group home when neighbors recoiled at his erratic and often bizarre behavior. She wishes that people who reject the concept of institutions would worry about their own problems, not hers.
She recalls how he once startled neighbors in a Washington suburb when he bolted from his home at 11 o'clock one night and wandered through yards banging on trash cans.
Another time, he shocked a neighborhood woman when he strolled into her house unannounced and uninvited.
"Society just does not accept him on his level," Mrs. Jones said. "He comes and goes at Great Oaks. At a neighborhood, there will always be people who will be afraid and will reject him."
Unapologetically, she insists: "I'd rather see my son dead than see him rejected by society. And I'm tired of educating society. I really am."
Events are pushing the argument toward a climax, with parents on both sides of the issue lobbying legislators, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini to slow down or speed up the pace of deinstitutionalization.
The catalyst was the Justice Department threat, made in July, to ask the courts to force Maryland to spend up to $5 million making improvements at Great Oaks. Its July report, based on inspections from 1986 to 1990, charged that Great Oaks violated residents' civil rights by overmedicating them and by failing to provide meaningful therapy or a well-trained staff.
In a particularly disturbing criticism, the government charged that Great Oaks dealt with self-abusing patients by outfitting them with helmets and arm restraints rather than taking the time to wean them away from their injurious behavior.
For his part, Mr. Sabatini said the report was flawed because it focused on old problems that have all but disappeared. And Ted Bunck, who is in charge of therapeutic programs at Great Oaks, said the report greatly exaggerated the degree to which self-abusing patients are restrained. Only 12 residents, he insists, wear helmets, and only for sporadic 15-minute stints during the day.