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Committees Wrestle with “Feeble Minded” Problem

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.

1903 Appointment of Committee on a Home for the Feeble Minded Ordered. The Senate concurring, that a special joint committee consisting of three on the part of the House, with such as the Senate may join, be appointed to inquire into the advisability of establishing a Home for the Feeble-Minded of the Sate. Said committee shall ascertain as nearly as possible the number, condition and ages of the feeble-minded of the State, also the probable number that would come under the care of the State, if such a home should be established, and such other facts as may be necessary for the information of the Legislature.
1903 Appointment of Committee on a Home for the Feeble Minded

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.”

Report from Committee on Home for Feeble Minded, 1905 Thousands of sorrowful homes with thousands of susceptible brothers and sisters, are shadowed with the presence and the influence of these imbeciles. This home care of the feeble-minded child consumes so much of the vitality and energy of the wage earners of the family, that often the entire family becomes pauperized. It is a public duty to relieve these families of their unbearable burdens. The problem does not lessen when adult life is reached; the adult males become the town loafers and incapables; the irresponsible pests of the neighborhood; petty thieves, purposeless destroyers of property, incendiaries, and very frequently violators of women and little girls. It is well known that feeble-minded women and girls are very liable to become sources of unspeakable debauchery and licentiousness which pollute the whole life of the young boys and youth of the community. Almost every town has one or more of these defective women, each having from one to four or more illegitimate children, every one of whom is predestined to be defective mentally, criminal or an outcast of some sort. There is a widespread and insistent demand that these women be put under control. But the terrible misfortune of having a feeble-minded child is liable, and often does occur in families without a mental, moral, or physical taint for generations back, and where no cause can be assigned. The rich and the poor, the great and the humble are alike liable to this dreaded visitation. An institute for the feeble-minded is in the nature of an insurance organization. The taxes paid by any individual for its support are only small premiums which insure training and life care to any member of the family who may need it in the future. No family is absolutely secure against such need during its period of growth.
Report from Committee on Home for Feeble Minded, 1905

In 1907, with the tide of public opinion in their favor and the favorable committee report backing this move, the Legislature passed “An Act to provide for the care and education of the Feeble Minded”, establishing a state-funded institution for people with developmental disabilities.

Acts and Resolves of the 73rd Legislature of the State of Maine, 1907 Care of Feeble Minded. Chapter 44. An Act to provide for the care and education of the Feeble Minded. Sidebar: School for idiotic and feeble-minded, to establish. Main body: Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in Legislature assembled, as follows: Section I. The state shall establish and maintain a school for the care education of the idiotic and feeble minded six years of age and upward, which shall be known as the Maine School for Feeble Minded. All such feeble minded person supported by towns in the state, who, in the judgement of the municipal officers of towns or state board of charities are capable of being benefited by school instruction, shall be committed to this institution.
Acts and Resolves of the 73rd Legislature of the State of Maine, 1907 Care of Feeble Minded

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.

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Theme Alert!

Study vs. Action

Study vs. Action

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


Values Check

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?