Since the first California state institution opened in 1852, individuals with mental health and developmental disabilities were removed from the community and committed to state hospitals and developmental centers. These individuals were committed for a variety of reasons, many which we consider unacceptable today.
Some experienced significant personal losses, such as poverty, poor health, trauma, displacement or the loss of loved ones. Others had physical limitations or experienced unusual thoughts or beliefs that others didn’t understand.
As a result, many were diagnosed with a mental health or developmental disability that doctors thought required hospitalization. Sufficient research and knowledge was unavailable at the time to determine the most effective treatments for people with these disabilities. As a result, some did not receive the treatment they needed and remained at these institutions for several years or the remainder of their lives.
Many may have had career or artistic aspirations or plans to start a family, but they died at the institution without the opportunity to realize their goals. Living in medical institutions meant to help them, they were isolated from their families, friends and communities, essentially dismissed and forgotten by society.
Legislation was passed in the mid-20th century that closed many of these state institutions. As a result, large numbers of people were discharged and returned to the community. Since there were not adequate services and supports to help them reintegrate into the community, many gathered and formed groups to improve the lives of people with disabilities. This activism marked the birth of self-advocacy groups and the self-help movement in California. Led by and for people with mental health and developmental disabilities, these groups became a powerful force in the disability and civil rights movement.