Front Wards, Back Wards

Fernald State School, America’s first institution for those with developmental disabilities, was founded in 1848 and still operates today.

APT Presentation
Premiere Date
May 13, 2007
60 minutes
Funding Initiative
Open Call

William C. Rogers

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The Film

This program charts the 160-year history of the Walter E. Fernald State School (now called the Fernald Center) in Waltham, Mass., the first public institution in the United States to serve individuals with developmental disabilities.

Today, following an overhaul of its philosophies and practices, the 186-acre Fernald Center clings to its original mission of offering a variety of treatment options in addition to vocational opportunities for its residents. But its future is in jeopardy because the facility, which once housed thousands, is now home to fewer than 200 people. Cameras follow residents and advocates as they travel to the Massachusetts State House to lobby on behalf of the center.

Filmmaker William C. Rogers, who visited his uncle at Fernald for many years, portrays the complex story of the institution. Originally formed in 1848 as a school aiming to train people to better function in their homes and communities, it became an “asylum” in 1890. While still clinging to some idea of training and education, it viewed its main purpose as protecting mainstream society from the negative effects of those considered “feeble minded.” Residents who were considered more capable were placed in the “front wards,” while those considered more seriously disabled were hidden out of view in the unkempt, warehouse-like “back wards.”