At one time, 7,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities lived in Massachusetts institutions.
From Burton Blatt’s pictorial “Christmas in Purgatory” describing the conditions in those institutions – “There is a hell on earth, and in America there is a special inferno. Abandon All Hope, you who enter here. I sometimes wish that God were back. Suffer the little children.”
I started my career in 1974. I personally witnessed the filth, stench and nakedness that was the Fernald State School. I was working with men who had been tied down, kept in solitary confinement and given lobotomies.
To this day, the moment I decided to forever to do this work is very clear in my head. At that time, my job along with another attendant, was to “herd” 30 shabbily dressed men down some stairs and into, what was referred as, “the pit.” It was a dusty fenced in outdoor area with two broken swings. As we sat above the “playground” on a concrete slab, our primary assignment was to make sure no one got hurt, while holding onto the wrought iron fencing.
I don’t know what moved me, but I jumped down into the pit causing a small cloud of dirt. I began to brush a man’s hair with a community hairbrush. As I stroked through his thick matted graying hair; the next moment changed the course of my life. Ken looked up at me with such love, light, and compassion, that I knew that in this work I belonged.
Fast forward to today
Darkness Into Light
Isabelle is a beautiful four year old girl, and she and her mom are standing next to me on the field for Red Sox “Disability Awareness Day.” During the ceremonies, her mother turns to me and says, “When Isabelle was two, she didn’t speak at all, and I was devastated to find out that she had autism. HMEA therapists then came into our lives and home. Now, my problem is that “she doesn’t stop talking.” (she said with laughter).
On that same field several years earlier, Peter, who also has autism, had the courage to sing the National Anthem in front of 36,000 people. Distracted by the woman using sign language to sing the song, he immediately began a high pitched laugh. Twenty years ago, a rough Red Sox crowd may have booed him off the field. Instead, the ballplayers began to sing, the box seats, and then the entire Stadium joined in to sing with heart carrying Peter to the finish with loud applause. That inspiring moment now has over 3 million hits on YouTube.
From Darkness to Light