Metro, Newton

Pulitzer Prize–Winning Writer Talks Impact of Institutionalization on Individuals and Families at Newton’s Allen House

Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Jennifer Senior spoke about the mistreatment of family members with developmental disabilities at a community event at the Nathaniel T. Allen House in West Newton on Wednesday.

“Institutionalize—this is what one was told,” Senior said. “This was standard, considered best practice, and not just in the best interests of the family, but in the child’s best interest.” 

Pathway to Possible, Inc., a nonprofit organization that supports and empowers individuals with developmental disabilities, organized the event. Senior talked about her article “The Ones We Sent Away” in The Atlantic, which explores the development of disability care and the widespread impact of institutionalization as well as its impact on her aunt, who had a developmental disability and was institutionalized for most of her life.

Institutionalization is when someone is placed or kept in an assisted-living facility.

“I look at Pathway to Possible as somewhat of an organization that’s really trying to get out there and help society in ways that are not commonplace, necessarily, and applaud the work that they do,” Senior said.

Senior’s article explored the historical misconceptions about developmental disabilities and how misguided institutionalization harms families. 

“There is almost something Forrest Gump–like in that the back of my hand was institutionalized,” she said.

Senior discussed the history of her own family and talked about her aunt, who lived with a developmental disability in secret. She emphasized the negative result of institutionalization as she believes it puts a wedge between families. 

“You realize your family histories, I became utterly aware of just how normal and common it was for institutionalization of this kind to happen,” Senior said.

Senior said there is a connection between societal upheaval and personal struggles.

Her aunt grew up in a time when there was no other option but to be isolated from those who were considered normal-bodied in society. She talked of her determination to preserve her aunt’s legacy, as before Senior’s writing and investigation, her tale had been abandoned in the family history. Senior’s article highlighted the impact of institutionalization and emphasized how close she is to the topic. 

“I was trying to put my aunt back on our family tree, we were all complacent in one woman’s elimination from our family,” Senior said.

Senior said she has a positive outlook for the future of disability care when asked about policy changes and shifts in public perceptions.

“As we look ahead, we must build on the legacy of advocacy and the strides we’ve made,” she said. “We’re not just fighting for better policies or more inclusive practices, we’re fighting to change the fabric of our societal understanding.”

November 12, 2023