Bernard Carabello

Bernard Carabello has been a tireless advocate for individuals with developmental disabilities within the state of New York and beyond since 1972.

Born with cerebral palsy but misdiagnosed as having an intellectual disability, Bernard was sent to the Willowbrook State School for Children on Staten Island at age 3 by his mother, a single parent of six children, on the recommendation of doctors. He spent the next 18 years of his life in this notorious institution, described by Senator Robert F. Kennedy in 1965 as a “snake pit,” where residents were routinely abused, neglected, subjected to squalid living conditions and denied educational opportunities.

In 1972, a physician at the facility arranged for ABC News investigative reporter Geraldo Rivera to visit Willowbrook and expose the conditions at the school. Bernard, at great personal risk, let the cameras in. Bernard appeared in Rivera's investigative report on Willowbrook, titled "The Last Great Disgrace," helping to document the appalling reality of the institution and create a massive public outrage.

Bernard’s participation in the expose contributed to the filing of a landmark case and ultimately, the closing of Willowbrook in 1987.

In 1980, Bernard accepted a governor-appointed role as Advocate for the New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, where he led the fight to protect the rights of New Yorkers with developmental disabilities.

In 1986, he went on to found the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State, (SANYS). Since then the association has grown to represent more than 700 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in New York state.

After 37 years of working as the state-appointed advocate, Bernard recently retired. He remains active in the Commissioner's task force on Willowbrook, seeking to enforce the rights of fellow residents of the institution and all other individuals served by OPWDD. He continues to share his story “to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Bernard Carabello's courage and eloquence in recounting his story continue to spark the worldwide deinstitutionalization movement, which began his four-decade commitment to shepherding self-advocacy and closing institutions. He continues to speak out and advocate for the rights and freedoms of people with disabilities.

In 2017, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest presented Bernard with the Felix A. Fishman Award for his leadership and dedication to advocating for the rights of New Yorkers with disabilities. In 2020, Bernard received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the City University of New York College of Staten Island, which sits on the land formerly occupied by Willowbrook.

Remembering Willowbook: A Conversation with Geraldo Rivera and Bernard Carabello (Open Captioned): https://youtu.be/ed74WSXaL-M