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History Repeats Itself?

Remember when Samuel Gridley Howe said, way back in 1874: “Even idiots have rights which should be carefully considered!”?

Despite Howe’s warnings – and those of others over many years – states, including Maine, continued to build institutions, group persons of like ability or disability together, and segregate them from the rest of society.

When Maine officials signed a consent decree in 1978 to settle a lawsuit against Pineland, they agreed that the state and services it funded should provide the least restrictive settings and most normal living conditions possible for persons with developmental disabilities. It also required that the living conditions afford “privacy, dignity, comfort, and sanitation.”

Yet the impulse toward institutions continues as some community-based facilities for developmentally disabled persons grow in size and the people they serve become less integrated in every-day community life and less in control of their own lives. 

A new project called Opportunity Farm is set to be built in the same town where Pineland once stood – New Gloucester. The full color informational packet that informs the public about this effort includes language like: “a sustainable, integrated, and accessible campus will be positioned amid 150 acres of farmland, mature trees, and beautiful vistas” and “a beautiful campus in which they will be provided the 24/7 care, education, and holistic wrap-around therapeutic and family services that they deserve.”

While all that language sounds wonderful, it echoes the same sentiments that well-meaning philanthropists used in 1908 when arguing for the opening of the Maine School for Feeble Minded:

“At one of these institutions all forms of feeble-mindedness are cared for…The effort toward improvement is made…By a careful system of training these minds are developed…”

“It would be difficult to conceive of a more beautiful location than that selected…for the home. The scenery is grand. None more glorious can be found anywhere in Maine.”

“The great idea of these homes is that they teach the inmates how to do work…The inmates erect the buildings, paint them, keep them in repair…They till the land, care for the cattle, in this way reducing the expense of operation materially.” – Lewiston Evening Journal, October 10, 1908

And the same ideas, repackaged as “progressive steps”:

“When the psychiatric hospital for children opens it will mark one of the greatest and most progressive steps forward in the treatment of the mentally disabled in Maine history.” – Dr. Bowman, quoted in the Lewiston Daily Sun, December 3, 1960

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