Wassaic Developmental Center
(click to enlarge)
Bathroom partition as exercise equipment
Design model
Bathroom partitions create small spaces
Discarded crank now used for physical therapy
Ledger rails support music storage panel
Brenda on a swing for two
Brenda and Smokey the Bear
Girls enjoying the hammock
Invited to speak to mental health administrators at a conference organized by the Ohio Dept. of Mental Health, we found colorful fruit posters at a next door supermarket and demonstrated low cost environmental change.

In the waning days of huge, isolated, rural asylums for the developmentally disabled in the midst of "de-institutionalizing", Schoolworks was able to strike an interesting "deal" with the director of, what was then called, The Wassaic State School for the Mentally Retarded, run by the New York State Dept. of Mental Hygiene.

We had just finished renovating a play room at the New Haven Regional Center, a newer, smaller school for disabled children, and decided to try to apply the same principles of low cost, innovative environmental change we had experimented with there, at a larger scale, public institution with the hope of replicating the designs throughout the State system. The director and staff were receptive to our ideas but the bureaucracy made it impossible to hire us if we weren't registered vendors or consultants. Now that the statute of limitations has long passed, we can divulge how these rules were so creatively circumvented.

The "deal" was this: in exchange for designing and building an occupational therapy or day room environment, we would be hired as "attendants" - the lowest paid position in the state Mental Hygiene bureaucracy. Two of us would work two days a week for a full week's pay spread over a full year. Every Monday and Tuesday we met with staff, surveyed the Center for appropriate sites and observed how the institution worked. We had the privilege of being with the residents and experiencing how they lived their daily lives and with the real attendants and therapy professionals who cared for them. Some important revelations gleaned from this process resulted in central parts of the final design.

The most important insight was that if you make a place more comfortable and stimulating for the caregiver, the quality of care for the recipient will surely improve. Environments designed only to be easy to clean, leave attendants little choice but to be cleaners. Without incentives in the place itself, the staff might not go out of their way to interact with residents. The problem we faced was how to transform day rooms, where residents spend most of their time, with a very small budget that paid for only two days a week.

We found one solution on a tour of the storage sheds where eighty years of extra stuff had been dumped. One creaky door revealed a mountain of discarded, steel bathroom partitions and a smaller pile of the grab railings that had once been attached to them. We figured out how to use the railings as connectors to make L-shaped floor dividers to create private, one-on-one teaching areas as well as modular play equipment. We then learned that the Center made its own mattresses in a factory on the grounds so we ordered up special vinyl floor mats to fit into the partition system.

Other found items included old iron cranks that were turned into physical therapy devices and barrels and webbing that made up a swing for two.

A system of wood ledgers on the walls supported storage, a hammock, tables, soft panels of different textures and a canvas room divider with a good story about a young woman and a bear. (see "Growing Places")

A bureaucratic trick, a creative way of looking at garbage and a $600 investment made a significant change in the daily lives of attendants and residents of this institution. The project provided evidence that we don't necessarily need to appropriate millions of dollars to improve learning environments.