Are we forgetting the past?
Minnesota long relied on a system of state institutions, referred to as state hospitals, to house people with an array of disabilities. Private and county facilities also provided housing for large groups of disabled people. Those of us of a certain age might remember when counties converted “poor farms” into smaller-scale institutions. Many people with disabilities wound up living in those settings.
These types of housing were far from ideal. Facilities were often old and in deteriorated condition. Staff shortages and poorly trained staff were common situations.
People were warehoused, plain and simple.
Deinstitutionalization in Minnesota began in the 1980s. It was a long and controversial process. Communities where state hospitals and private facilities were located objected to the loss of jobs. State officials quarreled as to what future living arrangements would be best. Questions were raised about where people would go when large facilities closed.
Institutionalization kept people with disabilities out of their home communities and at times, away from proper care and support. Advocacy organizations and self-advocates made the case that unnecessary institutionalization is a civil rights violation and is discriminatory. It was a hard fight, played out before the Minnesota Legislature and in the courts. Closing all of the institutions took more than 25 years.
The Arc Minnesota’s Steve Larson, who is now retired, recalled the years of effort in an interview several years ago:
“It wasn’t an easy task. It took a lot of time, it took a lot of effort, there were some meetings that weren’t very fun but people worked through it and were able to proceed. (And) we did it. The biggest hurdle was the overall perception that people couldn’t be served in the community….but once they learned and we could change that perception, then things started to snowball.”
As deinstitutionalization spooled out, Minnesota was seen as one of the most progressive states. Efforts here were held up as a national model.
Twenty-two years ago, Minnesota closed the Fergus Falls State Hospital. It was the last state hospital to close. At one point Minnesota had nine state hospitals for people with developmental disabilities alone.
A key takeaway from the long fight to close institutions is this: People needed and still need safe places to live in their home communities. While not ideal for everyone, group homes have long been a viable option for many people.
What made deinstitutionalization work was the creation of that network of group homes across the state. So did staffing that allowed people with disabilities to have their own homes, hold a job, go to school and participate in community life.
The threat to those options is ongoing and all too real. It is escalating.