Help disability advocates stop a holiday light show at former state institution

Waltham Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy

Thousands of disabled people died at the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center. Today, in its ruins, the City of Waltham is allowing the Lions Club to host a month-long holiday light show fundraiser that will erase disability rights and replace them with Christmas lights. As a coalition of leading disability advocates from across Massachusetts, we are calling on the City of Waltham to revoke the permit.

The use of this site is both disturbing and inappropriate, given its history of human rights abuses and experimentation on children. Hosting the Greater Boston Celebration of Lights here ignores the fact that the people who lived at the Fernald School were denied holidays with their families and loved ones for generations.

Waltham is a city with many beautiful landscapes, all of which could be repurposed for a holiday light show. This should not and cannot be one of them.

The Fernald is a site of national historic importance. It is a place of memory, of human rights abuses, and a major civil rights movement. All of that should be told and memorialized. It should not be a site for holiday party that erases that history so people can drive among abandoned buildings. Nor is our history an afterthought. People with disabilities are people, and we will not be overlooked.  

We have seen compromise ideas proposed on social media, such as having pamphlets distributed, telling holiday light show attendees that they are driving through the ruins of a site of human rights abuses; or that free light show tours be given to people with disabilities, giving them the chance to celebrate the holidays in a place where people like them were once locked away. For obvious reasons, these are unacceptable.

Our open letter, signed December 2, 2021 is below:

December 2, 2021

An Open Letter Regarding the Use of Former Disability Institutions in Massachusetts

Tens of thousands of citizens with disabilities were once locked away for life in institutions all over Massachusetts. This story is not long past, but there is a disturbing effort underway to erase it in communities that once housed these facilities. This includes cities like Waltham, where the ruins of the Fernald School—the oldest of the former state school sites—are yet again being used for a holiday light show.

There, community leaders have eagerly solicited ideas that will hide the school’s history, from its darkest days to the era of reform that began in the 1970s. Along the way, they have reflexively excluded people with disabilities from any substantive role in envisioning how the site should be handled. Meanwhile, no municipal efforts have been made to recognize the survivors of institutions, tell their stories, or even meet with them. In Waltham, as with almost every other site in Massachusetts, disabled people have been shut out.

This erasure is not just a concern of the past. The same mindsets that transformed institutions into warehouses that forcibly hid disabled people out of sight are now the mindsets that lead communities like Waltham to hide their history behind holiday lights. These actions send a clear and disturbing message to disabled children, adults, and institutional survivors in our communities.

As people with disabilities, disability rights organizations, and their allies, we denounce this trivialization of the past and the baffling dedication community leaders have shown to doing it again and again while ignoring the very people who sites like the Fernald are about. We call on them to embrace basic decency and stop conducting these light shows on grounds that deserve reflection and respect.

Organizational Signatories:

Arc of Massachusetts

Center for Public Representation

Boston Center for Independent Living

Dignity Alliance Massachusetts

Disability Law Center

Disability Policy Consortium

Friends of the Belchertown State School

Harvard Law School Project on Disability

Human Services Research Institute

Kiva Centers

Lurie Institute for Disability Policy


Mass Advocates Standing Strong

Massachusetts Association for Mental Health


Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee

Metro Boston Recovery Learning Community

MetroWest Center for Independent Living

Northeast Independent Living Program

Northeast Recovery Learning Community

SouthEast Recovery Learning Community

Wildflower Alliance

Wild Ivy Social Justice Network

Individual Signatories:

Thomas Brown, president, MassPRC

Anne Fracht, past Board President, MASS

Alex Green, Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School Project on Disability

Ingrid Grenon, Author

Sera Davidow, Director, Wildflower Alliance

Yoni Kadden, History Department, Gann Academy

Evan Rockefeller

Sue Rorke, MWCIL

Adam Rosenblatt, Associate Professor of the Practice in International Comparative Studies, Duke University

Ida Shaker

Zachary Sherman

Carol Steinberg, Attorney and Writer

Danielle Angiolillo Thompson

Petition by
Walnut Creek, California

To: Waltham Mayor Jeannette A. McCarthy
From: [Your Name]

We, the undersigned, call on you, Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, to revoke the permit for the Waltham Lions Club's holiday light show at the Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center, and publicly commit to a disability-led process for re-using the site so that incidents like this do not happen again.