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Front Wards, Back Wards

Front Wards, Back Wards

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Now in her early thirties, Patti has severe physical and mental disabilities and requires specialized care. Her sister Cathy is full of praise for the staff of the Fernald Center, where Patti lives. But other residents have horrible memories of abuse and neglect. Says one, 'Nobody on the outside knew what was going on behind these walls.' Created in 1848 as a school to train people to function in their homes and communities, it was redefined as an 'asylum' in 1890, warehousing residents for the rest of their lives. They were called idiots, simpletons and fools, and for 160 years Fernald State School America's first institution for people who were then labeled mentally retarded was where they would stay. Still open today, Fernald stands as a model of the best and worst we can do for people we define as needing our assistance.

Those residents thought to be more capable or presentable were placed in the 'front wards,' while those considered more seriously disabled were hidden away in the 'back wards.' Still professing ideas of training and education, such institutions had come to provide beds and food but little else. Their purpose was to protect society from the negative effects of the 'feeble-minded.' Today Fernald is home for less than 200 highly dependent residents, now referred to as 'consumers,' and its future is in doubt.

Through the recollections of Fernald's staff, residents and families, this thoughtful program profiles the evolution of attitudes toward people with mental disabilities in the United States. A production of Coruway Film Institute, produced in association with WGBH, Boston, and ITVS, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.