“There is a hell on earth, and in America there is a special inferno. We were visitors there during Christmas, 1965.”

Original caption: “The population of State residential facilities runs the gamut from a few hundred to more than 5,000; but on the average, each institution is caring for 350 patients over stated capacity and has a waiting list of better than 300.” ~The President’s Panel on Mental Retardation

by Valle Dwight

Beat that for a first sentence. It’s from a book published in 1966 called Christmas In Purgatory: A Photographic Essay on Mental Retardation that details two reporters’ visits to state institutions for people with disabilities on the East Coast. If it’s true that pictures are worth a thousand words, this book has enough words to fill a few oceans.

I stumbled upon the photos online several years ago while helping my son research a history paper on disability, and it has haunted me ever since.

Growing up around here, one of the most insulting things you could say to a person was “What, are you from Belchertown or something?” Belchertown was where our local purgatory was located.

Lest we get complacent, it’s important to remember that The Belchertown State School for the Feeble-Minded, which opened in 1922 and housed some 700 children in deplorable conditions only closed 26 years ago. My son with Down syndrome, who goes to college, has a network of friends, plays on an intramural basketball team, acts in theater and sings in a chorus, was born 21 years ago.

As the generation of parents who fought to get their children out of Belchertown (and shut down institutions altogether) ages, it’s important for us to remember the not-distant past so that we never repeat it.

In his new book, You’ll Like it Here, Ed Orzechowski tells the story of 6-year-old Don Vitkus, who was sent to live at Belchertown by the state. Don’s story is inspiring and a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. It also is a painful reminder of all the lives that were thrown away in the cruel halls of Belchertown and other institutions.

If you want to learn more about the history of Belchertown, and how we have historically treated people with intellectual disabilities in this country, check out these two videos:

Purgatory: An Historical Analysis of the Belchertown State Schools

They Need Love, They Get Angry, They Bleed