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Unfortunately, not all that long ago many people with disabilities were relegated to institutions, hospitals and mental health facilities where, at best, their basic needs were met and at worst, they were crowded, neglected and abused. They were separated from their families, who often were unable to provide adequate care, and rarely, if ever, thought to have talents and competencies that might allow them to live in and contribute to their communities.
In fact, until the mid-1950’s much of the general public still cited early 20th-century studies claiming people with mental retardation (a term no longer acceptable, instead referred to as intellectual or developmental disabilities) were a menace to society and the cause of most crime, social ills and even poverty. This mindset became the foundation of efforts to warehouse people with disabilities across the United States throughout the early 1900’s.
Change Is Possible
During the 1960’s, racial minorities brought the issue of civil rights to the forefront of American society, paving the way for class action lawsuits on behalf of other minorities as well, including people with physical or mental disabilities. It was during this time Maine parents and other socially-conscious citizens filed a class-action suit in Federal District Court in Portland on behalf of the residents at the Pineland Center in New Gloucester — called the Maine School for the Feebleminded when it opened in 1908 — citing appalling conditions and treatment. During the same time, advocacy for people with mental illness in Maine intensified, resulting in a new bill of rights, fewer people institutionalized at Augusta Mental Health Institute (now Riverview Psychiatric Center) and elimination of unpaid labor.
One result was the Pineland (Community) Consent Decree, which covered about 1,000 people who had been involuntarily committed to Pineland on or after July 3, 1975, and set rigorous standards for treatment, both at Pineland and for class members in the community. Another result was the Augusta Mental Health Institute Consent Decree (AMHI Consent Decree) which required the State of Maine to establish and maintain a comprehensive mental health system based on the needs of people with mental illness.
Those decrees; however, weren’t enough for some people; certainly not for Bonnie-Jean Brooks who believed two things — Everything is possible and people with disabilities should be provided with opportunities and support services that allow them to be part of their families and live in their communities. Fueled by the groundswell of support for people with disabilities, but knowing there was still a lot to be done, she quit her teaching job and in 1979 founded the nonprofit Opportunity Housing, Inc., now called OHI.
OHI began with two residential homes offering support services to people with disabilities — mental illness, intellectual disabilities or both — and provided them the opportunity to set goals, make choices, and live and work within their communities.
40 years later
After 40 years of success and growth, OHI today supports nearly 600 people with disabilities in their own homes or apartments, or in one of OHI’s staffed houses and in the community, through a variety of services. With OHI support, people with disabilities volunteer in hospitals, fire departments, animal shelters, churches and synagogues, proving that everyone has the potential to be more independent and assets to their community if given the chance — and the right combination of support services.