Home invasion: The Arizona Training Program at Coolidge is the only home some developmentally disabled people have known

Faye Arrington looked down at her 3-year-old twin sons, their tiny bodies curled toward each other like a pair of parentheses. She thought they looked lonely in their cribs, and Arrington wondered if she was doing the right thing.

She was committing her boys to an institution called the Arizona Children's Colony. That's what you did in 1952 with children like the Arrington twins, born with cerebral palsy and severe mental retardation, destined to live life in a semi-vegetative state (though they would surpass their life expectancy many times over).

The day they were born, Arrington's doctor told her to take them to the state mental hospital at 24th and Van Buren streets in Phoenix.

Instead, she brought them home, expecting to watch them die. Everyone told her to give up. When the twins both contracted staph infections around their second birthdays, a doctor agonized over whether to give them penicillin to save their lives. Arrington worked day and night to keep the babies alive, and she did it by herself.

In 1949, when Faye Arrington's sons were born, the implications of raising a disabled child were much different than they are today. There was no state Division of Developmental Disabilities to provide funding for therapy. There were no parental support groups. There was no nonprofit Arc or federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It took me 24 hours to feed them, and then I'd start all over again," says Arrington, now 75 and living off the little she saved working as a meat wrapper for more than 40 years. "I had no family supports, no nothing. And we were looked at as a bad family for having something like that."

She already had one daughter. She was pregnant with another who would also be born disabled. (Her husband divorced her and remarried after the birth of their fourth child.) She simply could no longer support young Darrell and Dorrell.

So on March 19, 1952, Arrington drove her boys from Mesa to the brand-new Arizona Children's Colony, six miles outside of Coolidge, a town southwest of Phoenix near Casa Grande. They were the facility's first residents.

Darrell and Dorrell Arrington are still there today, curving toward each other in a perfect mirror image. They can't stand to be apart. Their mother says their wheelchairs have to be parked next to each other in church so Darrell can reach out for his younger (by five minutes) brother's arm. Once he grabs onto it, he falls asleep.

A couple of years ago, Faye Arrington brought her children home to Mesa for the first time in more than 50 years. She sent out invitations with photos of Darrell, Dorrell, and their younger sister Darla Kay. More than 70 family members showed up to meet them. Some didn't even know they were alive — or, for that matter, had ever been born — until that day. Staff from Coolidge drove the Arrington siblings to Mesa and sent a nurse along to take care of them.

At the end of the day, they returned to the center. After all, that is their home.

The Arringtons and the other 129 people who live at the facility now known as the Arizona Training Program at Coolidge (ATPC) spend their days in relative peacefulness, but the world around them has changed.

Today, no one would dream of telling a mother to commit her handicapped child to an insane asylum, or any other kind of institution, for that matter. Starting in the '70s, the civil rights movement expanded to include people with disabilities and the truth about deplorable living situations in institutions began to come out. Nationwide, many facilities like ATPC have closed, as efforts are made to include developmentally disabled people in the community.

There's a huge stigma around the word institution — conjuring up images of shock treatments and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style lobotomies. It's a picture that lingers in the minds of many disability advocates, who remember when ATPC was home to more than 1,000 people, with beds lined up in large barrack-style rooms and staff ill-equipped to take care of needy residents.

The picture is much different now. At the facility in Coolidge, things are tranquil. The Arrington twins, and others, are living out their "retirement" in a place where they are safe and well cared-for, according to their family members, staff at the facility and a bird's-eye view (a three-hour tour, earlier this year). In this case, the institution is anything but — it's their home, and it's the only one most of its residents have ever known.

But at the Arizona Legislature, the stigma lingers. Efforts are being made to shut the facility and move the residents into community group homes, or another intermediate-care facility. As it turns out, the man behind the current effort to close Coolidge is a direct competitor. He runs an Intermediate Care Facility for the Mentally Retarded in Phoenix, where it costs at least $112,993 per resident per year, only marginally less expensive than Coolidge when it comes to the facilities' needier residents.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin