Visionary Voices Interview: Dennis Haggerty

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”

This quote has been attributed to many including Thomas Jefferson, Wendell Phillips, and Ida B. Wells.   For me, however, these words will be forever linked to Dennis Haggerty. It is a quote he is fond of, and references often.

I first met Mr. Haggerty at the apartment he shares with Eileen (his wife of 60 years).  The Haggertys have only recently moved to this assisted living facility in Media, PA; though still unpacking, the walls are already lined with photographs of their four children, 12 grandchildren, and 9 great-grandchildren.  These images have clearly been given pride of place in the Haggerty’s new home.

Family is important to the Haggertys.  Both come from large Irish American families, and are happiest when their extended clan gathers for the holidays or special occasions.  Ask them about their kids and you’ll hear stories of beach vacations, graduations, weddings and grandchildren.  They speak sentimentally about their upcoming 60th wedding anniversary.  Their four year old great grandson calls the Haggertys’ new home “the hotel for old people” much to the amusement of his great –grandparents. On the surface, the Haggertys are a typical family.

In actual fact, the Haggertys experience is anything but typical.  In 1958 their infant son, Dennis ‘Boomer’ Haggerty Jr. contracted pneumonia; complications caused him to go into cardiac arrest, and Boomer was deprived of oxygen for several crucial minutes.  As a result Boomer experienced significant cognitive delays, and the Haggertys’ lives were forever changed.

Like other parents of that era, The Haggertys looked for supports, but found that the options were few.  The service system was sorely lacking; families struggled, and people with disabilities had no place in the community. As a lawyer, the system’s limitations offended Mr. Haggerty’s sense of what was moral and just.  As a parent; he understood the agonizing decisions parents had to make when they were unable to care for their children alone, but whose only available option was an institution.

So Dennis Haggerty worked to change the system.  It helped that he was an attorney.  It also helped that he had gumption to spare.  Posing as a doctor (and outfitted in a white coat and doctor’s bag) Haggerty slipped into Pennhurst in the 1960’s to see the deplorable conditions firsthand.  He took photos of what he saw, wrote endless notes. As a member of the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Citizens (PARC), he called upon the organization to fight for the closure of Pennhurst.  When some parents, afraid of losing what little they had for their children, were reluctant to sue the Commonwealth, he asked them to confront the evidence he had gathered. Heartbreaking stuff.  PARC members made the difficult decision to pursue legal action, and hired a young civil rights attorney named Tom Gilhool to represent them. The Right to Education Case of 1971 resulted in the landmark PARC Consent Decree.  Suddenly schools were open to children with disabilities and parents had options.  Mr. Haggerty served as Court Master overseeing the Consent Decree’s implementation.

In the following years, Haggerty continued to advocate. As a consultant to the President’s Committee on Mental Retardation, Haggerty served six presidents. He traveled around the world looking for best practices in disability services. He helped found the National Center on Law and the Handicapped, and fought for access issues across the country.

Referring to the many success he played a part in, Haggerty says “There was no blueprint for this – we had a lot of lucky breaks and good timing”.  Still, the work came at a cost. Most months, he was away from home three out of four weekends .  He missed his children’s sporting events.  He made a good living, but might have earned more if he had been able to concentrate on more financially lucrative work.  But he wanted a better life for his child, and for all children with disabilities.  And, as Mr. Haggerty is quick to tell you, he ‘had fun’ along the way.

The  Haggerty Papers are more than a record of historical facts; Dennis Haggerty’s personal notes and correspondence show the connection between personal experience and political/social action.When I asked Mr. Haggerty why he wanted The Institute on Disabilities and Temple University to have his papers, he said, “When you don’t like a system it is possible to change it, and I would like my papers available to those who have an interest in changing the system”.

In the current climate of budget cuts, services and supports counted on by today’s parents could be seriously compromised.  The waiting list initiative is currently unfunded while, quietly, more beds are being opened in segregated facilities. The Haggerty Archives is a reminder to today’s advocates to be ever vigilant – according to Dennis Haggerty, that’s the price you pay for liberty.






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