Closing of Fernald Developmental Center

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 ameliorated. 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!