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Disability Advocates Discuss History of Massachusetts Disability Institutions at Harvard Law School Panel

The Harvard Law School Project on Disability hosted an event with disability advocates Wednesday.
The Harvard Law School Project on Disability hosted an event with disability advocates Wednesday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Xinni Chen and Katie B. Tian, Contributing Writers

Disability activists, scholars, and educators discussed the history of Massachusetts institutions for people with disabilities at a Harvard Law School panel on Wednesday.

The Harvard Law School Project on Disability, a research center that seeks to promote disability justice, hosted the event. Alex Green, adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and an HPOD visiting fellow, moderated the discussion.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to provide public education to children with disabilities in the country. Though initially created as a means of education, the schools soon became a network promoting segregation, eugenics, and abuse. In recent decades, disabilities rights movements around the United States have led to the closure of these institutions.

The panel featured Reggie Clark, a survivor of Walter E. Fernald State School; Kate Benson, author and historian; Desiree Forte, youth program manager of Easterseals Massachusetts, a program that provides support for disabled women; and Anne Fracht, self-advocacy associate of HPOD.

Benson, Clark, Green, and Fracht currently sit on Massachusetts’ Special Commission on State Institutions, which researches and reports on the history of state institutions for people with disabilities or mental health conditions.

Green began the panel by describing the importance of accessing historical records that have been hidden.

“A lot of folks who were in institutions were not dead, and to pretend that this is a history that is gone is also ludicrous at a time when this is a history that we definitely need to learn from,” Green said.

Green then asked each panelist to speak on their perspectives. Clark described his experience growing up at the Walter E. Fernald State School, a developmental disability institution where he was forced to deal with “patients” whom the female nurses were scared to handle.

The state often handled closures of institutions in a “lazy” way, Clark said, by not preserving patients’ records.

Benson, the author, then spoke about another institution, the Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, established in 1922. The public did not learn of its inhumane conditions until after World War II, according to Benson.

“They were well built, well-manicured. No one really had a concept of what was happening inside,” Benson said.

When Benson began teaching her students about disability history, she said they started reflecting on their identity and “what their place was as a person with a disability and just how they were carrying on that fight into the future.”

Growing up, Forte also did not learn about disability history but later became involved with various youth activist groups that pushed to incorporate a disability history curriculum into the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

A common theme during the panel was self-advocacy for activists. Fracht, the HPOD self-advocacy associate, emphasized the importance of patients learning to speak up for themselves and take charge of their own care.

“Until we can make our own choices, we will always have some type of institution,” Fracht said.

The discussion closed with a question and answer section. In response to an audience member’s question on disability erasure, Benson talked about the ways that people have commodified disability history, which “truly belongs in the hands of historians.”

“We see a lot of disability history being put up for sale,” Benson said. “Especially this time of year — it is October. It is spooky season. Everybody wants a piece of institutional history to hang on their walls.”

Green, who organized and moderated the talk, said in an interview after the panel that he hopes HPOD can provide resources for people to have more discussions about disability history and rights.

“That’s acutely important here at Harvard, where we have a deep and basically unevaluated history of involvement in building up the institutions that did a lot of these abuses,” he said.

“I think that that has resonance today for people in our community who are wrestling with their own disabilities, who have their own challenges with the University in terms of access, who have mental health issues,” he added. “Something just seems to have changed after the pandemic, where I see in our community a real desire to have more of these conversations.”

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