I learned last week of the closing of another state institution, this time in Massachusetts,
the Fernald Developmental Center founded in 1848.
Below is a guest commentary from Ralph Edwards, 2015 TASH Board President who
reminds us of the tragic early history of our advocacy movement and the need to be
Closing of Fernald Developmental Center
November 19, 2014
Guest Blog Post By: Ralph Edwards, 2015 TASH Board President
On Thursday, November 13 2014, Fernald Developmental School closed its doors.
Founded in 1848 as the “Massachusetts School for the Feeble-Minded”(sic), it was
the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. At its founding, the 180+ acre school
in the Boston suburbs was seen as a progressive, humanitarian innovation in the
care of “idiots and feeble-minded” (sic) individuals. Photos from the early days
show girls in starched white dresses and boys in white shirts and black ties sitting
erect at classroom desks or playing in the fields and meadows. Over time, Fernald
residents also included orphans and abandoned children, unmarried pregnant young
women, visually and/or physically impaired individuals as well as individuals with
intellectual or developmental disabilities. The “out of sight, out of mind” approach
may have helped to mollify the minds of family members. The Eugenics movement
provided solace to a society seeking to engineer “better” people.
Walter Fernald, the third Superintendent of the school, was a proponent of Eugenics,
a movement to prevent individuals considered “genetically inferior” from reproducing.
Over time, the confluence of Eugenics, devaluing individuals with disabilities,
overcrowding, underfunding, lack of oversight and other factors contributed to a
culture of abuse, denigration and crimes against humanity equivalents. An
environment of vulnerable individuals with limited decision-making opportunities
created circumstances for abuse and exploitation, attenuated social and spiritual
growth, infantilism, and worse.
Through family advocacy and court action in the 1970’s, conditions were
Simultaneously, changes in socio-cultural philosophy supported by research
propelled a “close the institutions” movement. The day is dawning on self-
determination, community inclusion and full participation in community life.
There are many examples across the country and in Massachusetts of individuals,
some with complex medical needs and communication challenges, excelling and
exceeding expectations when faced with community life. Many not only become
involved in social and civic engagements, they become workers and taxpayers!
Under the Deval Patrick administration and the leadership of Department of
Developmental Services Commissioner Elin Howe, Massachusetts prevailed (in
finally closing Fernald) in light of numerous lawsuits to keep Fernald open. On
November 13th, the last Fernald resident moved to their home in the community.
TASH has been a leader in the “close the institutions” movement and has helped
to redefine “institution”, not merely a place with certain number of residents, but
relating to the control an individual has over their environment, movement,
interaction, privacy, etc. While celebrating this milestone of closing Fernald, let’s
remember that its origin was predicated on the science of its day and what was
seen as progressive, benevolent motives and practices. Let us remember the
scores of unmarked graves across this nation of individuals at institutional sites
like Fernald. Let us envision a future when everyone has an opportunity for equity
and full participation in their community. Let us be vigilant!
Tony Paulauski Executive Director
The Arc of Illinois
20901 S. LaGrange Rd. Suite 209
Frankfort, IL 60423