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Front Wards, Back Wards documentary film on the Fernald School

Front Wards, Back Wards. Documentary on the Fernald School

October 27, 2016 @ 7:30 pm - 9:00 pm

The filmmaker, William Rogers, will answer questions after the screening.

Front Wards, Back Wards charts the 160-year history of Massachusetts’ Fernald Center, the first public institution in the United States to serve individuals with developmental disabilities. The film tells of the years providing the best and worst of care for those defined as disabled. Weaving current residents with the history of the institution the film asks the question of how and why such places exist?


Director, Producer and Writer William C. Rogers ventures to find the meaning found behind the walls of America’s first institution for people labeled developmentally disabled. Brought there first by his uncle and profiled in the prior Emmy-nominated film My Uncle Joe, Front Wards, Back Wards asks what we can learn from this place.

We are first introduced to former resident and current employee Joe Almeida as we are given tour through the physical facility. Joe becomes our guide not only to the physical place of Fernald, but also is our way in to uncover the long history of this place and its people, including a small number of significantly disabled individuals who represent the institution today.

Samuel Gridley Howe, a wealthy Boston doctor, opens the historical section of the film and finds the first funding, in 1848, for the Massachusetts School for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Youth. Walter E. Fernald follows Howe and with him comes both new names and new attitudes for the disabled. The feeble-minded become known as mentally defective and the institution goes from a place of schooling to a place where people may be held for the rest of their lives. And with this turn begins the chapter of how capable young children, men and woman become locked away for the stated good of society.

As we move to the present we learn of the move towards institutionalization — a national move that has its roots in a landmark court decision involving Fernald State School, its residents and family. The “Consent Decree” begins a long move towards community-based care. Yet Fernald remains open today (as of 2009) and its walls stand as a reminder that how we see those seemingly different from us is a reflection of the world we see and thus the world and walls we create.

The film adds to this the issue of how apparent non-disabled people were dumped at a place like Fernald. How did those of the front wards — those quite capable of taking care of themselves as well as others — end up lumped with those more severely disabled people in the back wards? The wider question the film addresses is how all were forgotten and left at a place like Fernald.

The film’s final chapter looks at Governor Mitt Romney’s desire to close Fernald for good and the small band of relatives of those remaining at Fernald who will “fight to the bitter end.” —Written by William C. Rogers

(Update: The Walter E. Fernald Developmental Center was shut down on November 13, 2014.)

Front Wards, Back Wards is a production of Coruway Film Institute, produced in association with WGBH, Boston, and ITVS, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


This program is sponsored by Winchester Reads in conjunction with its 2016 book selection, Rosemary, The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson. Now in its fifteenth year, Winchester Reads is a community-wide reading event sponsored by the John and Mary Murphy Educational Foundation and coordinated by the Winchester Public Library, the Winchester Multicultural Network, Book Ends, and many enthusiastic volunteers.


October 27, 2016
7:30 pm - 9:00 pm
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Jenks Center
109 Skillings Road
Winchester, MA 01890 United States
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Winchester Multicultural Network


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