What’s so terrible about staging a holiday light show on the grounds of the old Fernald School in Waltham that spreads joy and helps the Lions Clubs raise money?
Nothing — unless you know the abandoned buildings on the site once were home to children with disabilities who were abandoned there and, during one dark era, were subjected to scientific experiments. The light show is festive — until you realize the city of Waltham, which received state money to buy the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, has failed to deliver on commitments that were tied to the purchase.
Like the national reckoning over race, this holiday light display forces us to confront society’s historic mistreatment of a class of people — in this case, people with intellectual and physical challenges. But this reckoning is also about state money and how it should be used. When Waltham purchased the property from the state in 2014 for $3.7 million, it received $2.7 million available under the Community Preservation Act, which limits use of the land to open space, recreation, affordable housing, and historic preservation. Six years later, Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy has not delivered on the promise to redevelop the property or create a museum of disability history.
Waltham’s paralysis allows the worst ghosts of the past to haunt the place.
Established in 1848, Fernald was the oldest publicly funded facility for people with developmental disabilities. Initially it was “built around a progressive idea,” writes Alex Green, a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University who has extensively researched Fernald, to provide education and skills to people who could then return to the community and live productive lives. Over time, however, Fernald became a dumping ground for people with disabilities. In the 1940s and ’50s, the school was the site of experiments sponsored by Quaker Oats Co. and conducted by MIT and Harvard scientists, who gave children cereal dosed with radioactive isotopes to study the absorption of iron and calcium. After a class action lawsuit was filed in the 1970s, conditions improved. However, as a trend toward inclusivity for people with disabilities replaced institutional placement, the Fernald community dwindled. In 2003, the state ordered its closure. But some families and staff fought to keep it open, and the last resident didn’t leave until 2014.
That year, the city of Waltham purchased the 190-acre property and established a “Fernald Reuse Committee.” In 2017, the mayor submitted a master plan to the City Council that included recommendations for open space and recreation, historic preservation, affordable housing, and veterans housing. Asked about the current status, McCarthy said, via e-mail: “The City Council and I are working on both short- and long-term plans. A detailed status update will be provided to the Waltham community in the near future.”
Green, who is also a Waltham resident, said he has worked with city officials to try to properly memorialize Fernald’s past. That includes researching the names of Fernald residents who died there and writing biographies that are posted on a website. Overall, he describes the acquisition as “a boondoggle” and wonders how Waltham could get millions from the state yet fail to fulfill obligations tied to the money.
To disability advocates, the holiday light show is a symbol of a failed process that benefits people with connections, like the Lions Clubs — while ignoring the concerns of people who understand the historically painful consequences of being hidden away.
Leo Sarkissian, executive director of The Arc of Massachusetts, said the light show reflects the unconscious bias society still holds toward people with disabilities. “It’s not the city’s fault that Fernald is what it was. But once you have the property, you have to think through the implications,” he said. To Chris Hoeh, an advocate who represents the Greater Boston chapter of the United Spinal Association, the controversy over the light show has at least “shone a spotlight on the need to have a respectful reuse of this property.”
If you go to the light show, do it with an understanding of Fernald’s history — and what it says about our continued willingness to look past people with disabilities and not really see or hear them.