Bill Gooding: Piss on Pity

In the late 1970s, we opened the first “barrier-free” group home in Vienna, VA, for 12 individuals with developmental disabilities. Six of them had resided in state institutions due to lack of accessible housing and community support. Many local politicians spoke at the grand opening of the home, including Chuck Robb, who was Lyndon Johnson’s son-in-law and the Lieutenant Governor for the Commonwealth of Virginia at the time. The home remains open to this day, a testament that it’s much more difficult to undo a bad model rather than create a good one.

One of the first residents of the home was a gentleman named Bill Gooding. Bill used a motorized wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, but he was sharp as a tack and quick with his tongue. Bill often mocked me, laughingly saying, “You’re lying right there.” I can recall his chuckle like it was yesterday. Bill had more spark than an electric scooter, and he commanded respect from everyone. I slept overnight at the home several nights a week, and after Bill put me to bed, he would lock up the place.

I was in my 20s and fresh out of graduate school from the University of Virginia, where I’d been exposed to the teachings of Wolf Wolfensbarger and the normalization principle. “The normalization principle means making available to all people with disabilities patterns of life and conditions of everyday living which are as close as possible to the regular circumstances and ways of life or society.”

I naïvely believed then, as I do now, that I could do anything I put my mind to, overcome any barrier thrown my way. I passionately embraced the idea of supporting people with developmental disabilities to live “normal,” contributing lives. That meant, among other things, that I had to spend time on a Saturday night listening to bluegrass music at O’Carroll’s Bar in Arlington with “residents” and friends.

O’Carroll’s stayed open until 1995, and I can only hope it became accessible after the passage of the American’s with Disabilities Act signed into law by the elder George Bush in July 1990. But in 1978, my friend Frank Hunter and I had to take Bill to an alleyway to piss, as he would inevitably need to do after renting some beer at O’Carroll’s. Bill was happy to have drinking buddies, and despite the indignity of his circumstance, he was a model of dignity and self-respect.

Bill taught me to literally “piss on pity” and sometimes authority figures. After about a year and too much pissing on authority, I moved on. Bill stayed, and we lost touch with one another eventually. I hope he found his own home, like he always wanted. Rumor had it he got a job as a courier for the federal government. I wouldn’t put anything past him.

Thank you, Bill, for all the lessons about pity. A definition states that pity is a cause for regret or disappointment. The only thing pitiful in Bill’s life was the way society treated him.

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Learn more about the Normalization Principle

Isn’t it a Pity: by George Harrison

Some things take so long
 But how do I explain
 When not too many people
 Can see we’re all the same

Isn’t it a pity
 Now, isn’t it a shame
 How we break each other’s hearts
 And cause each other pain