Every few weeks, or at least with mind-boggling rapidity, a publication decides it has hit upon a great new idea to solve housing support issues for disabled adults, including those with mental health disabilities. They run a piece about nature-based farmstead “communities” of disabled people and staff who support them, and the “therapeutic” values of said farmsteads. They describe them often as a positive alternative to institutions, but these settings fail to qualify as alternatives to institutions. They are institutions.
The idea that nature-based, isolated settings benefit mental health is popular today.
For context, I define nature-based care as “sending disabled people off to rural areas to be in the quiet aura of the country so that their mental health and/or other disabilities heal,” also historically known as “institutionalization,” regardless of whether the people wanted to go there.The articles and their authors fail to mention that these farmsteads are institutions that segregate and trap people on farms.
And disturbingly, many of these publications and the authors of those pieces seem to not realize what history is behind the idea of farmsteads for disabled people.
State institutions for people with disabilities have had a tendency to be in rural and nature-based areas. Many people, including those in government have relegated – starting in about the 1850s – developmentally disabled people to rural areas. Unfortunately, people are still trying. They used to be called “farm colonies” and “institutions,” and now they’re called “farmsteads” and “intentional communities.” Evidence for the historical relegation of developmentally disabled people to institutional settings in the country can be found in Table 1 of “The Illusion of Inclusion: Geographies of the Lives of People with Developmental Disabilities in the United States” by Pamela Walker and Deborah Metzel.
Institutions for people with mental health disabilities, before and after the inception of what became known as the Kirkbride model in the 19th century – followed the same type of pattern. The Kirkbride model had two main components: “relative seclusion from cities and a main building with linear wards…” and was based off the York Retreat, which its founder, Samuel Tuke, “likely saw…. as conducive to healing, but the Retreat also required seclusion and plenty of surrounding land in order to function as a viable farm.”
Many institutions, such as Central State Hospital in Georgia (founded as the Georgia Lunatic Asylum in 1842), relied extensively on patient labor for farming. Its second superintendent, Theophilius Powell, “instituted a patient work program to increase the institution’s self sufficiency because the patient population was growing dramatically from the hundreds into the thousands – they needed more work from patients to keep everyone fed, the state legislature was not willing to appropriate enough funds to meet the need or look at another solution, [and] Powell divided patient labor along race and class lines.”
And “Illusion of Inclusion” notes the design of “farm colonies” for developmentally disabled people:
The farm colony, an institutional satellite agricultural operation whose purpose was to “… provide suitable homes and employment to the boys, and secondly to supply the home institution with fresh food” began in the 1880s.
The articles supporting farmsteads fail to acknowledge this history.
Disabled people themselves do not ever seem to be the authors. For example, these pieces are such as this Rolling Stone article on autistic adults, and this Vice article on people with mental health disabilities were both written by people who are not disabled.
For disabled people, the prospect of institutionalization – which for many, is one gap in a precarious system of supports away – is not something met with glowing praise. It is something met with fear, with anger, with the knowledge that people go into institutions and never leave, that people die in institutions. Even if death is not the fate of someone being institutionalized, there is an utter loss of control and autonomy. Service providers in institutional settings maximize efficiency at the price of quality, individualized, and community-based care. It doesn’t matter whether the institution is a farmstead, nursing home, state hospital, or private institution.
These farmsteads are not real community. They are institutions. It is irresponsible to say that a farmstead, populated mostly, if not entirely, by disabled people and their support staff is “community-based” and “intentional,” especially given that a lot of the disabled people don’t get to make that decision for themselves about living there.
We know that scattered site housing works for disabled people with high support needs and those with developmental disabilities, despite the many myths. We know that supportive housing can help vulnerable people, such as those with mental health disabilities, live and thrive in the community. Maybe it takes this supportive housing as well as supported decision-making. But it is doable. It is a right. We have already tried segregating people in institutions and the farms on those institutions. Parents need to stop trying to do that now.