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Disabilities not a reason to send a person to 'jail'

On Tuesday night, on the grounds of the Ontario legislature, a group of community-living activists and former residents of institutions gathered for a candlelight vigil.

They were celebrating a historic moment in the evolution of health and social-welfare systems that occurred when, on March 31, Ontario closed the last three large institutions for people with developmental disabilities.

The Rideau Regional Centre in Smith Falls (once the largest facility of its kind in the Commonwealth with close to 3,000 beds), the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia and the Southwestern Regional Centre in Blenheim harked back to an era when people with physical, developmental and psychiatric disabilities were warehoused and hidden away.

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It was a time not so long ago when there was no place in society for "cripples," "retards" and "crazies," to use once-common pejoratives.

Psychiatric patients and those with physical disabilities have been largely de-institutionalized over the past few decades, but those with developmental (or, if you prefer, intellectual) disabilities such as Down syndrome and Fragile X syndrome have, to a certain extent, been forgotten in the push for social justice and equality.

While the vast majority of people with disabilities now live in the community - they are our family members, friends, co-workers, neighbours, fellow congregants, hockey buddies and so on - a disturbingly large number remain trapped in institutions.

While Ontario has closed its institutions (and British Columbia did so years ago), there are several thousand people with development disabilities across Canada still residing in large, sterile facilities such as the Michener Centre in Red Deer, Alta., the Manitoba Developmental Centre in Portage La Prairie, Hôpital Rivière-des-Prairies in Montreal and Sunset Adult Residential Centre in Pugwash, N.S.

Historically, these facilities were dank, oppressive places - isolated, grossly overcrowded and rampant with abuse.

In 1971, the Ontario government, embarrassed by the freezing deaths of two residents of the Rideau Regional Centre, asked lawyer Walter Williston to examine the situation. In a devastating report, he called for all such institutions to be closed, concluding that "a century of failure and inhumanity in the large multipurpose residential hospitals should, in itself, be enough to warn of the inherent weakness in the system and inspire us to look for some better solutions."

Decades later, his recommendation has finally been implemented with the adoption of the Services and Supports to Promote the Social Inclusion of Persons with Developmental Disabilities Act, a law that effectively strips government of the right to operate such institutions.

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While it is true that these residential hospitals were, in recent years, well-maintained and had dedicated staff members, one fundamental issue remained: It was and is unjustifiable to "jail" someone for want of a few IQ points.

There is not a single person housed in these facilities - in Ontario or elsewhere - who could not be cared for as well, if not better, in the community.

The mistake that was made with the de-institutionalization of people with psychiatric disabilities was to release them into nothing, leaving them to struggle with severe mental illnesses without necessary supports such as housing and income.

The result is thousands - no, tens of thousands - of people with psychiatric illnesses and addictions living on the streets and in the rooming houses of Canada's big cities, a social disaster and a national disgrace.

To its credit, the community-living movement has, through its advocacy and hard work, ensured a smoother transition for people with intellectual disabilities.

Throughout history, people living with developmental disabilities have been vilified, patronized and marginalized.

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But, when afforded a voice, they express a desire for the same thing as everyone else in society - a good life: friends and family, a roof over their heads, basic wealth, choice in daily activities and the ability to make a contribution to society.

In short, while it may not always be articulated in this fashion, they want citizenship. And if our commitment to rights and equality is real, if the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to have meaning, people with disabilities (developmental, physical and psychiatric) need to be full citizens, to have an equal opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of community life.

But equality does not mean sameness. Flexibility, accommodation and commitment are required to ensure that people with developmental disabilities, no matter how severe, can live on their own, attend school, work (in real jobs, not in sheltered workshops), shop and play like everyone else.

There is no one-size-fits-all alternative to institutional life but, rather, many programs and approaches, all with one overarching goal: community living.

There is also a need, given the shocking number of people with developmental disabilities who are still warehoused and denied full citizenship in most provinces, to honour what Ontario has done, no matter how overdue.

At the sombre candlelight vigil, they remembered the dark period of institutionalization but, in each candle, there was also a flicker of hope, a recognition that we have finally extended to our fellow citizens the ability - and the right - to belong.

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More


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