Changing Our Stories: How One Couple Left an Institution

A cropped head shot photo of an elderly man and woman standing in front of the outside wall of their house and smiling at the camera. The man is wearing a long button down shirt and the woman is wearing a cardigan over a tropical shirt.
  • The Accomplishment

  • What Worked

  • About the Author

Most of us are defined by stories: those that we tell about ourselves and those that others (family, friends, and professionals) tell about us. These stories help shape how we see each other. If they are stories of optimism, courage, and capacity, then the possibilities can seem endless and worthwhile. However, if the stories are pessimistic, debasing, and negative, then assumptions about what is possible become equally limited and confining. This is what happened to Mary and Ron.

During their childhood and young adulthood, Mary and Ron were confined to a large institution for people with intellectual disabilities in Salem, Oregon, known as the Fairview Training Center. The stories that others told about them came in the form of professional assessments that used words such as “irresponsible,” “rather plain looking,” and “feeble-minded.” Due to their own efforts and the work of others, Mary and Ron were able to move out of the institution when they were both in their 20’s. Ron and Mary asked for permission to move out of the institution. They persuaded some of their family members to support such a move. Slowly but surely, they began to change their stories. Gradually, words such as “hard-working,” “kind,” and “gentle” started to be part of the stories. Once in the community, Ron and Mary showed a persistence and determination to achieve as much independence as they could: finding jobs they enjoyed and joining an advocacy group of people with developmental disabilities known as “People First.”

Over time, Ron and Mary became a couple and have shared their lives together in the community for almost 50 years. Ron (now 82) and Mary (now 75) have accomplished a lot in those 50 years, but the biggest accomplishment was taking control of the stories that shape their lives.