Austin State School

By: Sherilyn Brandenstein

Type: General Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: May 30, 2017

The Austin State School, in Austin, Texas, is a ninety-five-acre residential and training facility for adults with developmental disabilities. It is administered by the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. In 1991 the school had a staff of 1,505, more than two-thirds women, which served about 460 individuals at the west Austin campus and 615 in a fourteen-county region extending south and west of Travis County; about 315 of the off-campus population were under age three. Most campus residents had severe or profound retardation or multiple disabilities.

In 1915 the Texas legislature passed a bill to establish the state's first facility for the mentally disabled, some of whom had been housed at the Austin State Lunatic Asylum until then. Two years later the State Colony for the Feebleminded opened on Austin's outskirts with an initial admission of sixty-five females, ages six to forty-nine. In 1925 it was renamed Austin State School. Dr. John Bradfield, superintendent from 1917 to 1936, faced severe shortages in dormitory space and in personnel trained to teach persons with developmental disabilities, but he worked to build a residential training program. By 1927 a school building, for academic and vocational training on-site, had been added to the facilities. More capable residents were assigned by sex to domestic or farming chores. Beginning in 1930, adult clients also manufactured mattresses and brooms at the campus and assisted in the butcher shop, which provided meat for all state institutions in the area. In 1934 many male residents of Austin State School were moved to the school's new farm on the eastern edge of Travis County, to work in dairy, poultry, and truck farming. This farm, originally called Austin State School Farm Colony, was separated from the Austin school and renamed Travis State School in 1957. With the farm serving only men and boys until 1973, Austin State School continued to house mostly women and children. Because Bradfield, like most people of his time, thought that persons with mild or moderate retardation easily gravitated toward promiscuity and criminal behavior, he believed that closed, sex-segregated institutions were the most appropriate permanent homes for them. Therefore, during the 1930s and early 1940s, the "colonies" were managed restrictively. Buildings generally were kept locked, employees lived on-site, and residents' families had minimal access during visits.

The post-World War II period witnessed changing treatment philosophies for an expanding population of individuals with developmental disabilities. Texas public schools began offering special-education classes, allowing some youths with disabilities to remain in their home communities. As the National Association for Retarded Citizens urged a shift from custodial care in isolated settings to social, occupational, and life-skills training for community integration, Austin State School administrators worked to improve facilities and programs for residents during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet overcrowding and understaffing limited the number of residents receiving such training. Despite the establishment of four more Texas training schools between 1946 and 1963 and acquisition of a seventy-five-acre annex campus for the Austin State School in 1960, contemporary reports indicate that in 1958 only 400 employees provided twenty-four-hour service for 1,900 individuals at the school. By 1965, 765 employees supervised 2,500 residents, and hundreds still awaited admission. Meanwhile, in 1963 the school implemented racial integration in its hiring and admission policies. The Texas Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act in 1965 authorized county-based training centers for persons with mild or moderate developmental disabilities (see MENTAL HEALTH), so Austin State School increasingly served those with more severe retardation or multiple disabilities. To assist the school's residents preparing to move into the community, teachers from the Texas Commission for the Blind established training for blind children and the Texas Rehabilitation Commission helped to form specialized vocational workshops at the campus in 1967.

In the 1970s federal requirements for intermediate-care facilities mandated higher state allocations for the school, to provide residents with better housing, staffing ratios, and residential and vocational skills training. In 1972 the ASPEN residential unit began offering specialized training for residents with aggressive or self-destructive behavior. By 1974 the entire facility had 1,400 residents and 1,100 staff members. During the 1970s crowding was eased by construction of several new state schools and by completion of sixteen new one-story homes and a large residence for persons with mobility impairments at the Austin State School. Meanwhile, interdisciplinary staff teams developed individual program plans for residents' development. The school also added more trainers overall and initiated special services for the hearing impaired at the annex campus. Vocational training services were extended to include 450 residents, the largest increase ever. By 1977 the school's Community Services division had set up developmental training centers in Kerrville, San Marcos, Seguin, and New Braunfels and had launched its first community-based center for infant training. Such programs enabled people with developmental disabilities to stay in their home communities and increased the normalcy of their lives compared to that of those still in large residential training facilities. In 1983 residents and future residents of Austin State School were included in the Lelsz v. Kavanaugh resolution and settlement, which resulted from a 1974 class-action suit seeking an improved life and treatment for state school residents. To comply with the settlement, the school implemented many changes during the next decade, to help those served achieve as normal a life as possible within their abilities. By 1986 about 700 individuals resided in and received training at the school, while 540 were served in off-campus communities in Central Texas. As more persons with mild or moderate retardation moved to community placements, school administrators reorganized and retrained most residential staff to educate and care for those residents who required more intensive supervision. When the Lelsz v. Kavanaugh implementation settlement was signed in 1987, giving the defendants more specific guidelines, it called for Austin State School to increase its staff-to-client ratio within three years and to comply with standards of the Accreditation Council on Services for Persons with Developmental Disabilities.

During the early 1990s, the school consistently achieved ACDD accreditation; it was only the second Texas state intermediate-care facility to comply with the council's 600 standards. By 1988, 1,450 staff members were serving about 550 residents at the facility and several hundred more in Central Texas communities. The Community Services division added eighteen employees to the total 1991 Austin State School workforce of 1,505 to initiate services for about seventy disabled residents of nursing homes in the school's catchment area. With the 1992 final resolution of the Lelsz v. Kavanaugh suit, Austin State School increased its emphases on community placement and respite programs, rather than routine institutionalization. The school obtained more commercial work contracts, allowing it to change most prevocational training programs to vocational operations, thereby paying more residents wages for performing even simple jobs. By 1993 the vocational services staff had moved the school's sheltered workshops from the annex campus to a local commercial site. All of these measures contributed to the gradual normalizing of residents' lives to resemble those of the general populace. Meanwhile, Austin State School began routinely admitting individuals transferred from Travis State School in preparation for the latter school's closing.

Austin American-Statesman, November 1, 1990. Campus Echo, November 15, 1976, March 1980. Mental Illness and Mental Retardation: The History of State Care in Texas (Austin: Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, 1975).

  • Education
  • State Schools and Orphanages
  • Health and Medicine

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sherilyn Brandenstein, “Austin State School,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 30, 2017

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