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"The founding of the institutions was accompanied by a
pride, hope, and euphoria we can scarcely comprehend.
Wolf Wolfensberger


An increased interest in persons with disabilities in the early part of the 19th century found its way to social practice by 1850. At this time, social reformers such as Dorothea Dix were advocating for better services for all persons with disabilities, many of whom were living in appalling conditions.

Dix spent her early years teaching children. Later in life, while teaching Sunday school at a Massachusetts house of corrections, she was appalled by the living conditions of the women inmates. As a result, Dix spent the next two years visiting jails, almshouses, poorhouses, and asylums across the United States. She observed:

"More than nine-thousand idiots, epileptics, and insane in these United States, destitute of appropriate care and protection. Bound with galling chains, bowed beneath fetters and heavy iron balls, attached to drag-chains, lacerated with ropes, scourged with rods, and terrified beneath storms of profane execrations and cruel blows; now subject to jibes, and scorn, and torturing tricks, now abandoned to the most loathsome necessities or subject to the vilest and most outrageous violations."

Dorothea Dix
Dorothea Dix

Since it was unthinkable in 1848 for a woman to address Congress, Dix had Samuel Gridley Howe, a well-known social reformer, present her speech. Her specific appeal – that the United States set aside 5 million acres of land throughout the nation to accommodate persons with disabilities – was passed by both houses of Congress but vetoed by President Pierce. Through her passionate appeals, and with only the best intentions for persons with disabilities, Dix helped to prepare the way for public institutions.

Early Poorhouses
Early Poorhouses