30 Years After Laconia School Closing – Where We Are Now
30 years ago, in January 1991, the Laconia State School closed permanently. This institution, which at times had more than 1,000 residents living there, segregated people with disabilities from their family, friends, and the rest of the community. According to Community Support Network Inc., “New Hampshire citizens were confined to a life with no meaning or hope for the future.” As a result of a class action lawsuit, the school closed and New Hampshire became the first state to end institutions for people with disabilities.
While it is difficult to look back at this time in history and think about how people with disabilities were treated – it is important to ensure that the history and lessons of the Laconia State School are never forgotten.
A group that views the above statement as one of their guiding principles is ABLE-NH (Advocates Building Lasting Equality in New Hampshire). Their mission is to, “advocate for civil rights of children and adults with disabilities; and promote full participation by: improving systems of support, connecting families, inspiring communities, and influencing public policy.”
ABLE-NH is our state’s only independent disability justice organization. They receive no funding from the state or federal government which means all of their funding is through individual membership, community-business partners and sponsorships, and grant writing. According to their website, ABLE-NH views this as a positive because it allows them to set their own agenda and focus on issues of their choosing.
Their guiding principles include:
- Educate neighbors, family, friends, and public officials year-round, as well as during election cycles and budget sessions.
- Commit to developing new leaders within the organization.
- Build strong coalitions to create a broad and powerful base to ensure that citizens of all abilities have adequate support and services, spreading the message that no other group in need of support can ever truly benefit at the expense of another.
- Protect the systems at the state and federal level that support citizens’ ability to remain in their homes, their communities, and prevent institutionalization.
- End all waiting lists, whether officially sanctioned or unofficially maintained, ensuring that people who need assistance have access to the high quality services and support they need to maintain their health and safety and live in their communities with freedom and dignity.
- Ensure that any Medicaid or human service reform efforts prioritize New Hampshire’s commitment to Community-Based Care.
- New Hampshire will never again open a state-run institution for individuals with developmental disabilities.
Recently, ABLE-NH held a virtual discussion open to all to celebrate 30 years since the Laconia State School’s closure and talk about issues present today for people with disabilities.
Executive Director of ABLE-NH Lisa Beaudoin said an issue that remains for people with disabilities and their families is how they are being told about their child’s diagnosis by medical experts. “Many frame having a disability as ‘less-than’…individuals and families impacted need to believe that they can have a life worth living.”
According to the ABLE-NH website, some of the ongoing assumptions surrounding people with a disability are that they are incapable of learning, perpetual children, unable to develop authentic relationships, and are unemployable. However, according to the 2019 Report on Disability in New Hampshire, 35.5% of the population employed in our state have a disability, 49.1% of those in our state with a disability have some level of college education, and studies show people with disabilities are able to create and maintain meaningful connections.
“These assumptions infiltrate medical discourse, and, in effect, shape the ways in which diagnosis are delivered to individuals and families. ‘Disability’ is treated as a ‘health outcome despite current federal health policy which recognizes disability as a ‘population’,” states the ABLE-NH website. One solution for ending the stereotypes associated with people who have disabilities is to “collaborate and work with medical teams across NH towards the goal of systematically improving the cultural competence of healthcare providers when delivering the diagnosis of a disability.”
A panelist for the ABLE NH event, Dr. Erik Shessler, Pediatric Specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Clinic said, “it is important for those in the medical field to learn from patients and families to improve community engagement. We need to consider things we can do and ways to improve”.
Former Executive Director of Disability Rights Center-NH Dick Cohen noted the importance of “systemic advocacy”. Described on familyadvocacy.com, “systemic advocacy lobbies for reform and change of social systems and structures that discriminate against, abuse, and neglect people with disabilities”. Medical professionals, schools, and lawmakers are just some groups that by changing the way it is structured, people with disabilities could live a better life. This is separate from “individual advocacy” which is one person, or a group of people, advocating for people with disabilities. Both “systemic advocacy” and “individual advocacy” are and will continue to be crucial in allowing those with developmental and other disabilities to have an inclusive and accessible life.
In fact, Cohen mentioned, “The Laconia experience tells us why we need good advocates. The lawsuit would not have been possible without good advocates”.
Jennifer Bertrand is the Director of Community Partnerships at Community Crossroads and participated on the panel as a parent of someone with a disability. “In her early years, doctors had very low expectations for what my daughter might learn and what she might accomplish but we worked day and night at it and advocated every step of the way….instead of saying ‘can she do this’ we started asking ‘what supports and services will it take for her to be able to do it’,” said Bertrand. “Along with offering resources, it is important to offer hope,” she said.
ABLE-NH has a Disability Diagnosis Dialogues task force. Beaudoin described the task force by saying, “Families beginning their journey in life with a disability routinely report to ABLE NH the delivery of a diagnosis of disability from healthcare providers focuses on disability in negative terms and life outcomes. ABLE’s solution is to collaborate and work with medical teams across NH toward the goal of systematically improving the cultural competence of healthcare providers when delivering a diagnosis of disability and treating all patients with disabilities. Families deserve a balanced, accurate narrative about life with a disability. With the right support, people who experience disabilities and their families can and do lead fulfilling, meaningful lives.” You can learn more about the Disability Diagnosis Dialogues task force here, https://www.ablenh.org/our-work/disability-diagnosis-dialogues.
To learn more about ABLE-NH, visit their website: https://www.ablenh.org/. To watch the ABLE-NH ‘Culturally Competence Is Still a Dream’ discussion, click here: https://www.facebook.com/ABLENH/videos/761554307825407.