"Hell on Earth" two case studies on institutionalization that led to change

Willowbrook State School

Christmas in Purgatory

A series of revelations about conditions at the Willowbrook State School in New York, and the release of the book “Christmas in Purgatory” shed light on a population that was “out of sight, out of mind” behind the walls of institutions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. The public’s reaction was one of revulsion, as the brutal conditions in which people with disabilities were forced to live were laid bare for all to see. These two events contributed to much of the litigation, laws, public policies and funding that provided the basis for a new understanding and appreciation for the basic humanity, civil rights and potential of people with disabilities in mainstream society.


Click on the images above to learn more about these important milestones in the evolution of the inclusion of people with disabilities.  Please note - these pages contain very graphic content and do not make use of people-first language.  They are presented using terminology consistent with the era in which the events described took place.


Similar findings in Massachusetts prompted change that signified the beginning of the end of the “dark ages” of segregated institutionalization.  Some 30 years later, we hope they serve as a reminder, that while conditions have improved, institutions in Massachusetts remain intact.  Every dollar spent maintaining these aged facilities means another dollar taken away from investment in the future, not the past.