Sara Gelser, a Corvallis Democrat, is assistant majority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives.
The past three decades have brought a sea change in state policy for Oregonians with developmental disabilities. In 1981, more than 1,300 Oregonians with developmental disabilities lived at the Fairview Training Center in Salem, where for decades they were called “inmates.” Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the closure of Fairview. With the recent closure of the Eastern Oregon Training Center, Oregon is now the only state that serves 100 percent of its individuals with developmental disabilities in noninstitutional settings.
Our system of community-based supports is not perfect. It remains underfunded, provider wages and training are inadequate, and we must improve client safety in the system. However, Oregonians with disabilities have some things today they didn’t have 30 years ago at Fairview: freedom, dignity and a sense of belonging.
Many artifacts and records from Fairview have been lost or destroyed, and just last week Pierce Cottage was destroyed by fire of unknown origin. As the visible reminders of Fairview disappear, we must ensure that its history is not forgotten or sanitized.
Oregon maintained a Board of Social Control that oversaw more than 2,600 forced sterilizations through 1983. Forced hysterectomies, tubal ligations, vasectomies and even castrations were requirements for discharge from Fairview up through the late 1970s. In 2002, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber issued a formal apology for these human rights violations.
Kitzhaber also acknowledged other abuses. “Until the mid-1980s, if you could believe that, the staff of the institutions commonly used inhumane devices to restrain or control patients, including leather cuffs and helmets and straitjackets and inappropriately high dosages of sedatives and psychotropic medications,” he said.
Former residents tell stories of discipline with leather cuffs, cow whips, razor straps and isolation cages. An oral history project has worked to capture the stories of those who lived and worked at Fairview in their own words.
“I was handicapped, but it made me sicker to be there. It was like a prison. Handcuff. Shut door,” one said. “I didn’t like it there. People mean,” another said.
One resident described being disciplined with razor strops: “It stings really bad.” Others recalled: