We Have Always Been Here

Chapter 2 (A)

Over the years I have been asked (or told) often “why did we never see disabled people growing up”? Maybe you did but you didn’t realize it. For years the disabled were “warehoused” in facilities. It was only through the development of human rights over the past fifty years or so that we began to move away from that concept of institutionalization as “socially acceptable”. Plus, nobody really knows for sure and the term “disability” can be very fluid but, based on stats done by Forbes, about 96% of the disabled in North America have hidden disabilities.

I grew up with polio and many of the polio survivors were institutionalized. It was simple, most large city communities didn’t know how to make society “inclusive”. Today, due to advancements made in healthcare and policy matters, the face of disability has changed drastically. So to have the opportunities to live as contributing members to our society.

The same was true with the deaf community. The first institute providing education to the deaf community goes back to 1831 (before Confederation) and the proliferation of institutes for the deaf and hard of hearing took off, spreading across Canada like a wagon train of settlers. This was well ingrained in the psyche of society for generations of “well intention people” but did nothing to incorporate that segment of society into the community.

My first involvement with the deaf community was with the residents of the Jericho Hill Institution in Vancouver (late 60’s). In the early years of Jericho they also housed the visually impaired but eventually the CNIB built their own facilities. leaving just the deaf at Jericho. In reality, the hard of hearing community are closer to a “culture” than a disability. They have their own language, are a much more closely knit group of individuals and difficult for regular society to assimilate since most people don’t really want to learn sign language. If you haven’t seen the movie “CODA” (Children of Deaf Adults) I would highly recommend it. What makes it particularly interesting was the amount of participants (actors, support staff, etc) actually being deaf, not some actors “pretending to be deaf”.

In Calgary the original reason for building the Vernon Fanning Care Centre was to be a facility to house those with physical disabilities but in particular those polio kids aging out of the Junior Red Cross. There were no “real” regulations offering guidance on how to build an inclusive community where people could live independently while maintaining the right to “self-determination”. There is a big difference between “independence” and having the ability to make your own decisions (self-determination). It was simply moving polio kids to a more “age appropriate” institution. If you wanted to live independently, you did so on your own by being very adaptive.

Again, in Alberta, the Michener Centre was built in 1923 as a training school for “mental defectives,” a part of the Alberta government’s eugenics program, in which 2,844 people were sterilized. The Alberta Sexual Sterilization Act wasn’t repealed until 1972 which isn’t really ancient history. The Michener, although society thought they were doing the developmentally disabled a favour, had a sordid history of abuse and ill treatment. But, again, institutionalization was the easier way to go. Kids were dropped off there, some almost at birth, and that was where they spend the rest of their, often, short lives. It is still home to about 125 residents.

The history for the right to be part of an inclusive society has been marked with tragedy and sorrow. All done in the “best needs of the child”, a wonderful way to dodge guilt, “out of sight, out of mind”. Again in Canada the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) and in the USA the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, 1990) changed a lot of that however today we are seeing the erosion of so many of those gains. Don’t let history return, lets keep moving society, despite all of the turmoil of today, forward. Lets not let something like compassion fatigue move us backwards.

So when you ask me, where were all of the disabled in the past, remember we were here, we were just hidden.

More to come…

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