With increasing public sentiment towards institutionalization, in 1903 the Maine Legislature passed a resolution to create a committee tasked with studying the possibility of opening a Home for the “Feeble Minded” in the state.
In 1905, the “Committee on Home for the Feeble Minded” submitted its report to the 72nd Maine Legislature. The recommendation of the Committee was unequivocal: “After full investigation of this subject, we most earnestly recommend to the legislature of Maine, that humanity demands at our hands the location of such a home for this unfortunate class: that economy and the protection of society demand it.”
The Maine Home for the Feeble Minded officially opened in 1908, and in the decade to follow, a flurry of laws would solidify the institution as the expected and sanctioned place to send those in the state with developmental disabilities.
Systems are slow to change – when complicated policies are built over years based on societal assumptions and bureaucracies arise that give power to certain groups and leaders, the status quo is often seen as both better and easier than trying something new.
When faced with intractable systemic problems, the people who administrate those systems can be cautious in the face of calls for reform. A common step is to create a taskforce or commission a report to study the issue and bring back recommendations.
While careful evaluation of problems and potential solutions is important, much too often the movement forward ends there. Caring people with years of experience take months or years to develop detailed plans and recommendations, only to see those reports gather dust while policymakers argue over details and funding and implementation.
Here are some of the reports that have been funded by our legislature in the last few decades, filled with plans that have never been executed:
1973 – Report to the Appropriations Committeewith Recommendations to Adopt Basic Policies to Guide the Appropriation of State Funds for Social Services
1980 – Long Term Care Dilemmas – Perceptions and Recommendations
1996 – Report of the Assisted Living Task Force
1997 – Final Report of the Commission to Determine the Adequacy of Services to Persons with Mental Retardation
2003 – Roadmap for Change: Maine’s Response to the Olmstead Decision – Work Group for Community-Based Living
2008 – Final Report of the Blue Ribbon Commission to Study the Future of Home-based and Community-based Care
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?