By the end of the 19th century, the organization of the educational system in Maine was beginning in fits and starts, though the Department of Education would not be fully realized for almost 50 years. In the revised statutes of 1903, compulsory education for children ages 7 to 15 was the law – but with an exclusion carved out for “any child whose physical or mental condition makes it inexpedient for him to attend.”
It would be many years before children with disabilities were given the same rights as their peers to an education.
Who and what do we value in our society? How do we determine someone’s “worth”, and whether they are deserving of help when they need it? Are all people really equal – and do we treat everyone as equally human?
People with developmental disabilities were sent to institutions because they were seen as useless or even dangerous to society. Their value in a place like Pineland rested on their potential for being trained to do menial labor – a Pineland resident could potentially get a furlough or even release from the institution if they could show that they could work.
In general, people with developmental disabilities throughout our history have been dismissed, patronized, and dehumanized. Doctors assumed that people with developmental disabilities didn’t feel pain, caretakers believed that they did not need friendships or hobbies or someone to communicate with, and society saw them as dangerous and unfit.
There were also people and moments in history that shifted our assumptions about the value of people with developmental disabilities – President Kennedy’s experience of loving his sister with disabilities led to huge policy shifts that impacted people with developmental disabilities across our country, and the brave self-advocates who organized a civil rights movement led directly to another president signing the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The question must be posed, what is the value of all potential members of the community, with or without disability, to the very health and fiber of the community?