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The Lawsuit

First page of the Wuori v Bruns complaint, filed July 3, 1975 in the U.S. District Court, Southern Maine Division

1975 Wuori v Bruns Complaint first page

Maine was not the first state to face a class-action lawsuit seeking to improve conditions at a state facility for the developmentally disabled.  Some 48 such cases were filed between 1971 and 1996.

Maine’s case, Wuori v. Bruns, filed in federal district court in Maine on July 3, 1975, – by Pine Tree Legal Assistance, the first organization in Maine to provide free legal assistance to those in poverty – acknowledged that changes were underway at Pineland, but that the six defendants named in the case, and the “class” – all other residents and future residents – were not getting “training and education which would enable them so far as possible to lead normal lives.”

The suit stated, “Instead, acute boredom, physical deterioration, social regression, psychological debilitation, severe depression, and low morale predominate.”

Newspaper clipping from the Lewiston Daily Sun, July 7, 1975 – Headline: Right to Treatment Suit Filed Against Pineland
Lewiston Daily Sun, July 7, 1975

The plaintiffs ranged in age from 15 to 62 and had been at Pineland from 6 to 37 years.

The complaint detailed physical conditions at the institution, including crowding, lack of privacy, and limited choices for residents – as well as the physical and chemical restraints, lack of physical and occupational therapy, lack of education and recreation, and lack of speech and hearing therapy.

First page of the Wuori v Bruns complaint, filed July 3, 1975 in the U.S. District Court, Southern Maine Division
1975 Wuori v Bruns Complaint first page
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Institutional Bias

Institutional Bias

It is easy to assume that institutions are the right place for people with significant needs – in an institution, the assumption is that we can keep them “safe”, provide all the care they need in one place, and people with disabilities can live with “people like them”. These assumptions were worked into the policies and laws until the systems and the biases were intertwined and interchangeable.

Despite the evidence that institutions do not provide better care, a more stimulating environment, or less expensive treatment options than the community, our systems still reflect the historical assumptions that built them. When asked if people would like to live in the community they sign a waiver from their right to an institution.  The “institutional bias” is imbedded within the current waiver system – how most people with developmental disabilities access services – makes getting good and services in the community harder.  For that matter, the “institutional bias” includes an unwritten value statement that people with developmental disability do not have a natural place within the community.  But is that true?  Doesn’t everyone have a place?

More troubling still, many organizations are beginning to look towards building new institutions, using very similar language to that of the early 1900’s. They point towards the failures of the community system as proof that we need large congregate settings for people with developmental disabilities.

What are the assumptions here?