Like many of you, I watched the closing of the Olympic ceremonies. Today’s notes from the ghetto weave some thoughts about the Olympics, a book, a documentary, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In a waiting room this past week, Sports Illustrated lay limp and wrinkled on the table in front of me. An title about how the games were more inclusive this year caught my eye and I read it with disappointment. There was no mention of people with mental disabilities. I didn’t take the copy of the article because it wasn’t mine, and now I can’t find it to cite. You’ll just have to take my word for it unless you can find it for me.
I wanted to write a post remarking again how people with cognitive disabilities weren’t visible or participating in the games. As much as I watch the Olympics, I can’t help but see it as a symbol of our admiration of the able-bodied. Including some disabled people in the opening ceremonies and a Para-Olympian is supposed to change that view. The “main” Olympics gets the bulk of the media attention. In talking about the Olympics, then, the media coverage is a reflection of what the consumer wants to see. I’m not blaming the athletes for being able-bodied and I congratulate everyone for their remarkable achievements. I am, however, spotlighting the acceptance of exclusion.
Today I also finished Melanie Panitch’s Disability, Mothers and Organization : Accidental Activists and read about the three mothers who worked tediously to get their children out of insitutions in Canada and close them all down: Jo Dicky, Audrey Cole and Paulette Berthiaume. I read how these women lived in a time of not only gender inequality — “busy men” on boards versus women knocking door-to-door as volunteers — but also in a trail of institutions born from the eugenics movement. The first institution in Canada was the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, pictured above, which opened in 1876.
Ironically, as I finished reading the final chapter this morning, I tuned into the CBC documentary The Gristle in The Stew and listened to the stories of horrific abuse of the people who were labeled mentally “retarded” by professionals. These professionals told parents to just “forget about [their] children and move on.” The government film “One On Every Street” told parents that 1 in 33 children had mental retardation and described insitutions as happy places where children would be educated and rehabilitated in the name of getting them back into their communities. Not so for Paulette’s son and others like him. Her son Louis lived in an institution for thirty years before she could get him out.
Audrey, Paulette and Jo were made to feel guilty for not only having disabled children, but were also pressured to put their children into institutions and be “good mothers” for doing so. Many families lived in fear of not placing their children in institutions because they did not have access to other services so they turned a blind eye to the abuse. There was no “unity” in their struggle, for these fearful parents criticized activists against the campaign to close institutions in Canada.
While these three mothers fought (and won) to get all people out of insitutions in the name of their children, they were excluded and marginalized as “emotional” and “trouble-makers” along the way, often excluded from participating on major boards and committees. But they did not desist. These three women managed to close all institutions down in Canada, and worked arduously for over twenty years to do so. They worked in 1981 to include the disabled who were then omitted from Section 15, which dealt with equality, and secured human rights for the disabled in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They won an unprecedented $1,400,000 in personal dmages for 88 former residents of Saint-Theophile in Quebec in 1990 (pardon the omission of accents that I can’t access on this blog), among many of their accomplishments. They did so as volunteers. One reviewer, Susan DeLaurier says of the book, “Disability is often viewed as a narrow field of social policy, programs and services that leads to a set of parallel social arrangements that have isolated disabled people in segregated systems. By looking at the mothers of children with disabilities and their insights and researching their activism, it is hoped that disability will be viewed as a broad-based inquiry commanding social and political analysis.”
A class action law suit of $3 billion for the plaintiffs incarcerated and abused in Institutions in Canada, simply for having a mental disability, will happen in September 2013. Listening to Patricia Seth and Maria Slark, two of the plaintiffs in the documentary, made me shudder. As a mother, I already know of gender discrimination — domestic and public as a mother of an autistic child and an activist — and there are challenges with this in helping Adam. To imagine how the “accidental activists” had to wait for so long to see their children free again, reminds me why I feel anxious so often. I feel I am always looking over my shoulder and can never rest where Adam is concerned. We have to respond when advocates for any “treatment” or “therapy” which uses the same language and logic that incarcerated innocent people just a short time ago. In the ABA movement which started in Canada in the early 1990’s many of the campaign phrases and threads of logic echo like the halls of institutions. The ABA movement was founded on the premise that autistic children would recover by age six with the treatment (and now the argument extends to older ages) and would therefore no longer require “state” funding. At the time, the estimated costs of funding an individual in an institution was $85,000 a year. In 2012, I relate to the same feelings as these mothers and share their experiences even after feminism has evolved. The challenges and the way to help Adam become increasingly complex, there is resistence and fear of progress, old arguments persist and the “busy men” still exist.
Our situation remains fragile. Despite statutes, we have not achieved Inclusion for people with autism. Society does not see autistic or other mentally handicapped persons as truly valuable to our communities where definitions of “capacity” and “productivity” seem exclusive and informed by implacable economic theory. We see it at the most basic level as in extraordinary red tape in our education system and, after all, I’m “just a mother.” Despite detailed notes and expertise about our children, the public system will hardly pay attention to it. They prefer a report from a professional using standardized tests which is an exclusive and unjust method of testing an autistic person. I talked about some of this in another post about the many ways we experience exclusion. “The briefing notes by the Community Association for Community Living in 1993 noted the same: “despite the protection afforded to people with disabilities in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, many barriers to participation still exist in employment, immigration, education and the criminal justice system.” (Panitch, p. 145).
There is another group who tell us to “never forget,” and this same standard must be advocated for the disabled who have experienced formidable abuse in their lifetimes. When Pierre Berton reported about the abuses at the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia (pictured above) in The Toronto Star, Berton noted that after Hitler fell, “many Germans excused themselves because they said they did not know what went on behind those walls. No one had told them. Well, you have been told about Orillia.” Now I, along with others, am telling you about echoes; of the history that could repeat itself.
The Olympics is just one more timely, everyday example of using people as footnotes and keeping them in the ghetto. It is time to include all the Olympic events — special, para and everything else, under one umbrella. I work for the day when I can witness Adam attaining his full citizenship rights. Audrey Cole wrote a Manifesto with her two lawyers called A Manifesto of the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded in 1982:
“The Manifesto equated how the renewed constitution established the full autonomy of Canada within the community of nations with how the provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms introduced a new history for people with disabilities as valued, participating members of the community. It concluded cautiously: ‘The Charter of Rights and Freedoms obviously has very important implications for Canadians who live with a mental handicap. It is not possible to determine fully what those implications might be until the provisions of the Charter are considered by the courts in the contest [sic] of real life situations.” (Panitch, p. 133).
Audrey Cole said in her interviews with author Melanie Panitch:
“Our struggle is long-standing. It will not only continue but will gain strength with every denial of a fundamental right to any person of any age with or without disabilities in this country…Outrage, as you know, can be a unifying force for the achievement of social justice.” (ibid, p. 69).
We’re living the relay race and our work is not yet done.
Melanie Panitch, Disability, Mothers and Organization: Accidental Activists. New York, Routledge, 2008.