There were few services available in the territory of Alaska for individuals who experienced mental illness or developmental disabilities. At the time, mental illness was considered a crime. People with any sort of mental disability who were unable to care for themselves or who could not be cared for by a family member or guardian were charged and convicted as “an insane person at large.”


Those convicted of this crime were sent by the federal government to live in Morningside Hospital, a private institution in Oregon. By 1942, more than 2,000 people from Alaska, including very young children, were residing there. To learn more about this and/or to research patient lists please visit

During Alaska’s transition to a state, Congress passed the Alaska Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 to bring these individuals home. This act transferred the responsibility for providing mental health services from the federal government to the territory of Alaska, and ultimately the state, by creating the Alaska Mental Health Trust. To fund it, the state selected one million prime acres of land that would be managed to generate income to help pay for a comprehensive and integrated mental health program in Alaska. Quoted directly from

In the 1960’s, Geraldo Rivera and Dr. Burton Blatt brought national attention to a growing epidemic of abuse and neglect inherent in many institutions across the United States. As a result, the federal government responded by offering states a calculated federal percentage/share of funding (FMAP) for choosing to participate in ICF/MR Medicaid program.

In 1987 President Ronald Reagan proclaimed March “Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month.” The deinstitutionalization movement of the seventies and early eighties had laid the foundation for significant social change, and the presidential proclamation called upon Americans to provide the “encouragement and opportunities” necessary for people with developmental disabilities to reach their potential.

Prior to 1991, the federal government only paid for services if an eligible individual lived in an institutional environment such as an ICF/MR, nursing home or hospital. With the creation of the Home and Community Based (HCB) Waiver program, states were now allowed to “waive” institutional funding in favor of services and supports in community homes.

This milestone was followed by the state’s closure of Harborview Developmental Center in 1996.


A quarter century after the establishment of Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month, the world has changed in important ways. In the coming years, we’ll need to advocate not only for more advances but to retain the accomplishments of past decades.