Commentary: Putting Netflix’s Stranger Things in a 1980s mental hospital has its dark side

For Dennis Downey and James Conroy, editors of Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights, Pennhurst represents “one of the great, if unrecognized, freedom struggles of the 20th century”, fanning the flames of global deinstitutionalization and independent living movements.

After Pennhurst closed, most Western countries began closing institutions. This independent living movement was a precursor to the 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Article 19 of the convention obliges signatory nations to guarantee “the equal right of all persons with disabilities to live in the community, with choices equal to those of others”.

And Article 12 asks signatory nations to recognize that all citizens, regardless of disability, have “legal personality” and should therefore enjoy autonomy and respect.

The convention charges signatory nations with an unequivocal obligation to firmly make traumatic experiences of institutionalization a thing of the past, while recognizing and preserving stories of trauma as stories of dignity and respect.


Pennhurst is one of many “haunted” tourist attractions around the world inspired by the traumatized lives of people with disabilities.

A hemisphere away, high on a hill overlooking the rural town of Ararat in western Victoria, Australia, stands the Aradale Lunatic Asylum, the location of the famous J-Ward.