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Margaret Giannini, champion of people with disabilities, dies at 100

Giannini, an internationally recognized expert in the care of people with disabilities, was the catalyst behind what is now the Westchester Institute for Human Development in Valhalla, one of the world’s largest facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

By: New York Times |
December 12, 2021 9:02:06 am
Margaret Giannini. (Lou Salerno via The New York Times)

Written by Katharine Q. Seelye

Dr. Margaret Giannini, a pioneer in treating developmental and physical disabilities, died Nov. 22 at her home in San Diego. She was 100.

Her son Louis Salerno confirmed the death.

Giannini, an internationally recognized expert in the care of people with disabilities, was the catalyst behind what is now the Westchester Institute for Human Development in Valhalla, New York, north of New York City, one of the world’s largest facilities for people with developmental disabilities.

A pediatric oncologist at New York Medical College, she was summoned one day in 1950 to the office of the chair of her department, Dr. Lawrence Slobody. He introduced her to several parents whose children had a range of disabilities; they had not been able to find a doctor in New York City willing to provide them with general medical care.

Recognizing the obvious need, Giannini decided almost on the spot to start a clinic that would focus exclusively on such children. That year, she founded the Mental Retardation Institute in East Harlem, which she said was the first of its kind in the country. She worked out of a basement because others in the building did not want children with visible problems coming through the lobby.

“If ever a vital need and the right one to fill it were well met,” the Daily News wrote in 1970, “it’s in the person of Dr. Margaret Giannini and the field of mental retardation,” the commonly accepted term of that era.

By 1971, she had raised more than $7.5 million to establish a new building in Valhalla. The institute provided diagnosis, evaluation and therapy. It also trained professionals and students in psychology, social work, speech, audiology, nutrition and rehabilitation.

Giannini was dedicated to helping people with disabilities “before it became respectable,” she told the Daily News.

“There was a feeling of hopelessness about it,” she said. “I think the feeling of many physicians was ‘What do you want to bother with that for? You can’t do anything anyway — it’s just time-consuming and draining.’”

In addition to her son Louis, she is survived by three other sons, Robert, Justin and Mark Salerno; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Her husband, Dr. Louis Salerno, died in 1988.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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