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.

Given the ongoing pandemic, we are also disturbed that the organizers have chosen a format that encourages the spread of Covid-19. Thousands of disabled residents have died across the Commonwealth during this pandemic, and Waltham is currently in the ‘red’ zone. It is an affront to see this event marketed for bus tours and limousine tours for up to 15 people, encouraging the very gatherings that spread Covid-19 and disproportionately impact people in our communities.

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.  

The light show, which is slated for November 27-January 3 is being conducted as a fundraiser by the Lions. Our group is taking action after the city dismissed requests to find an alternative and the Lions did not respond to our request. We have given the City of Waltham five days to revoke its permit, after which we will consider further action.


Charles Carr | Commissioner of the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (2007-2015)

Sera Davidow, Director; Caroline Mazel-Carlton, Director of Training; Celeste Clerk | Western Mass Recovery Learning Community

Rick Glassman | Director of Advocacy | Disability Law Center

Alex Green, MPA

Bill Henning | Executive Director | The Boston Center for Independent Living

Chris Hoeh | Greater Boston Chapter | United States Spinal Association

Colin Killick | Executive Director | The Disability Policy Consortium

Albert Milne, President; Anne Fracht, former Chairperson; Brian Kremer, Statewide Coordinator | Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong

Caitlin Parton | Staff Attorney | Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee

Cora Segal | Cross-Disability Community Connector | Wild Ivy Social Justice Project

Zachary Sherman

Paul Spooner | Executive Director | The MetroWest Center for Independent Living

Carol Steinberg, Esq.

Maura Sullivan | Director of Governmental Affairs | The Arc of Massachusetts

Petition by
Alex Green
Waltham, Massachusetts

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.