Sunday, 27 October 2013

Pat Robertson Proves How Off-Base He Is About Disability

Perhaps I should start my commentary on this story by admitting my biases, particularly about Pat Robinson.

I was once a Christian, but I'm not anymore. But  when people asked, when I was healing after my stroke, if they could pray for me, I never said no. Who am I to say that it doesn't help? I don't like the spin on this school of thought that summarily dismisses medical intervention as a way through God might healing a person, but I've never personally come across someone who believes this (as far as I know).

And as for Pat Robertson...I just plain don't like him, The homophobic, victim-blaming, ignorance that he spews reminds me of Ken Swanson and makes me want to have nothing to do with a God that he claims to be serving.

Knowing the kind of things that Pat Robertson is famous for saying, I wasn't too surprised at his recent reply on The 700 Club to a mother that her child was deaf because she was praying wrong. It annoyed me, as Pat Robertson's pronouncements generally do, for a couple of reasons. But the whole thing made me sad.

"I Have Prayed for His Healing"

This is something that we keep coming back to again and again, isn't it? This idea that disability is something that needs to be cured or healed. Mia Mingus, recently honoured by at the White House as a Champion of Change, writes about it in "Wanting More and Finding Disability Justice":

"Disability was always framed as a sad or bad thing, as something unfortunate that happened to me, a tragedy, a flaw. My experience with the medical world was one about “fixing” me and making me more “normal” and less disabled. This of course, echoed my experience of the world at large. I never saw disabled women in the media being desired or living whole complex lives, let alone disabled women of color. The messages always boiled down to: disability is wrong and undesirable."  Read More

Granted, I think that the idea that disability doesn't have to be looked at as something to be cured is a relatively recent idea, and not one to which people generally get a lot of exposure. Parents of disabled children certainly aren't getting it from the medical establishment. They're not getting it from the media. Hopefully they're getting it from support services to which they're referred, but it's becoming very difficult for families to get support services.

So I don't want to shame this mother. She gets enough of that from Pat Robertson in his next sentence.

Pat Robertson Chose the Wrong Direction

I don't expect Pat Robertson to give a discourse on how disability is too often treated as a negative and how we need to start questioning that.

I didn't expect him to say, (paraphrased) "Well, I've prayed like this before and it worked for me...I don't know what you're doing wrong..."

Seriously? This is his idea of helping?

What I *wish* he would have said, perhaps after "Well, I've prayed this way to heal deaf people and it's worked for me", and instead of "I don't know what you're doing wrong," is something like: "As you pray, are you considering what his doctors say about his deafness? Are you and your family learning sign language? What are you doing to make sure, if it's not God's will that your boy get his hearing back, that he has as a great life as any hearing child?"

That would have made the whole thing a lot more palatable for me, and kept Pat Robertson out of my blog. For the moment, at least.

Pat Robinson and Responsibility

I don't like people who don't use their power responsibly. Pat Robertson knows that people are going to listen to him and take what he says  (pun intended) as Gospel. That he shamed a mother who was desperate enough about her situation to write into a television show by telling her that her that her deaf son isn't becoming hearing (the way so many influences tell her he should be) because she is praying wrong  (adding  nothing else in the way of advice but "try something else", to add insult to injury)  makes me feel ill.

And those of us that know that disability shouldn't be considered wrong, or undesirable, or something that needs to be "fixed", "healed", or "cured" need to keep talking. This is a message that needs to be spread.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Matthew Shepard: 15 Years Later

Do you remember where you were when you heard that Matthew Shepard had died?

I do. It was fifteen years ago today, when I was a freshman in university. I was in my room in the dormitory (we call them "residences" in Canada), working on an essay. The radio was on. I heard the story that Matthew Shepard had died in the hospital, and my heart dropped into my stomach.

I'd been following the story all week, ever since I'd heard that the 22-year-old Wyoming University student had been found burned, pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and suffering from exposure to cold temperatures for 18 hours. The story had hit close to home because it was suspected that Matthew Shepard's attackers, Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, had targeted him because he was openly gay. Being raised in a small town where several friends had struggled with the decision to come out, and seeing what some of them had faced once they did, I knew that Matthew Shepard's decision to be openly gay in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming was potentially risky. But it had never occurred to my young, naive self that someone might actually kill another person over their sexuality.

It scared the crap out of me, and filled me with a sadness that that I couldn't express. And I still get those feelings every year, on the anniversary of Matthew Shepard's death - the day that my belief in the world as a safe place for people who are different died too.

I wish that I could say that I've had a thousand experiences since then that have gone a long way to convince me that the world is safe for people that the world labels "different" - for LGBTT people, for people in racial minorities, for disabled people - but I haven't. Quite the contrary, actually.

University of Mississippi Students Heckle Matthew Shepard's Story

Matthew Shepard's story has  been made into a play called "The Laramie Project". It was recently performed at Ole Miss for an audience of almost exclusively freshmen attending as a course requirement.  A group of approximately 20 football players (as well as some other unnamed individuals) reportedly heckled the performers, shouting gay slurs and laughing inappropriately (at a funeral scene, at one point).

The entire audience was required to attend an education session about why the slurs were wrong.

In the case of the football players, I don't think that went far enough. They're varsity athletes - they're ambassadors for Ole Miss, whether they like it or not, and whatever their feelings about homosexuality are, at that age they're old enough to take responsibility for what happened here.

At the very least they should be held accountable for acting inappropriately in a theatre performance. They were rude and distracting for both the actors and other members of the audience. Perhaps, as actor Garrett Gibbons says he was told, this was a first theatre experience for some of them and they didn't know what to expect or how to behave. But that shouldn't absolve them from taking responsibility for inappropriate behaviour.

The athletes also need a bigger consequence for using  "borderline hate speech" (as Ole Miss officials called in in their apology) in a very obvious way in a public venue. In my opinion,   "fag" and "faggot" should be hate speech, but I guess they aren't officially considered such. Anyway, in a situation like this where even "borderline hate speech" is involved, I call bullshit on letting anyone, especially students who represent a university, get by with no consequence but a learning session. Representing a university in any capacity is a privilege, not a right, and if you use that privilege to spread hateful rhetoric then that privilege should be taken away from you.

Ole Miss should honour Matthew Shepard's memory and show its true commitment to making the university a place where all students can expect to feel safe and included by kicking these players off the team.

Fifteen years.  The movement for equality, for so many oppressed groups, has come so far...and yet still has so far to go.

Rest in peace, Matthew Shepard.

Read more here

Friday, 4 October 2013

Ontario Government Settles with Former Residents of Huronia RegionalCentre

In Ontario, former residents of the Huronia Regional Centre have been vindicated...or have they?

The class-action lawsuit against the Ontario government, launched by lead plaintiffs Marie Slark and Patricia Seth, was settled recently before it even saw open court. The government offered $35 million and a formal apology to intellectually disabled people who resided at Huronia Regional Centre between 1945 and 2009. There was much for which the government needed to apologize about how it managed the facility, although it claimed in its court defense that "there were incidents of abuse, but insists these were isolated and did not stem from neglect." Read more here

Life at Huronia Regional Centre

I wrote here about Huronia Regional Centre and about the atrocities committed on its grounds that have given it such notoriety. In "The Gristle in the Stew", a documentary about Huronia Regional Centre that aired on CBC radio, the lawsuit's lead plaintiffs talked about the following:

  • Being dropped off by my family at a strange place and being told by them that I'd be there until I died (Patricia Seth).

  • Being locked in cupboards

  • Having my head held under hot water (Patricia Seth)

  • Being made to lie facedown on the ground for punishment and having people step on my head if I turned my face. (Marie Slark)

  • Being turned upside down and held by my legs while water was run over my face (Patricia Seth, who says that this felt like she was drowning).

  • Being overmedicated

  • Having teeth removed for "safety" reasons

  • Being made to walk around the playroom with pants pulled down as a punishment for misbehaving.

  • Being told that if they tried to report any of this, they'd be punished, and that staff would get the other kids to abuse them.

Listen to "The Gristle in the Stew" here.

The Toronto Star published an essay by Canadian author Pierre Berton, written in 1950, that gives an idea of what the physical environment at Huronia Regional Centre was like. In it he talks about seeing beds everywhere, sleeping the residents head-to-head and sometimes less than a foot apart, the lack of fire-proofing and the general disrepair of the buildings, the "appalling" smell, and the  floor where one bathtub served 144 people. He tells a story about a resident who died in the infirmary while the nurse was called away to help with a fire evacuation in another building. Read more here

The government said that when abuse happened at Huronia Regional Centre, it was dealt with promptly and properly, and that residents were treated the best way in which staff knew how at the time. Read more here However, lead lawyer for the plaintiffs Kirk Biert said that the government's own documentation would win the case.  The 65 000 records that his legal team collected, the "letters from distraught parents, bureaucratic memos, ministerial directives, police reports, eyewitness accounts, coroners’ reports, inspectors’ reports, newspaper exposés and the findings of three provincial commissions of inquiry" told the story. Read more here

Is The Settlement a Victory?

These records will go to the Ontario Archives, but will be difficult to view because of privacy information laws. And because the suit didn't go to full trial, they weren't heard.  The stories weren't told. Read more here

While the concern about privacy is valid in that some of the records contain names of residents who are still alive, this doesn't apply to all of the records. And, as evidence in a trial, they should legally be public documents, not something that someone who, say, is doing research on the facility needs to file a request to see only to be told that they can't or to be given only some of it.

It all smacks of there being something in those documents that the government doesn't the public to be able to easily see.

And while $35 million seems like a lot, it only works out to $42000 per person. That's really not very much, granted that the suit was originally filed for $1 billion and many people were in Huronia Regional Centre their for most of their lives.

It's "Get them out of our hair" money. It's, as  Doug Turner, twin brother of former Huronia Regional Centre resident Tracey Turner says, "hush money". Read more here

Forgotten Children: Huronia Regional Centre's Legacy

"They stole our  childhood," said Marie Slark. Patty Seth said that being in Huronia Regional Centre was like being imprisoned, with the added terror of not knowing when you were going to get out. Read more here

Parents were encouraged to send their disabled children to Huronia Regional Centre and places like it and to forget that they existed. These forgotten children grew up in an environment where they had no rights and no one to go to when the people that were supposed to be taking care of them put them in danger.  Those that died at Huronia Regional Centre (over 2000) were buried on site grounds - 1440 of them are in graves marked only by numbers. For a number of reasons, we'll never know who is buried in many of those unmarked graves. Read more here

It's a dark, dark mark on Canada's history, but one that most Canadians have never heard about. We're not taught about in school. I'm astounded by how many people work with intellectually disabled people in Ontario without knowing about Huronia Regional Centre's history, given that many people who used to live in the facility are now living in communities and supported by agencies. The government eventually started to moved people out of the facility, discovering that it was actually cheaper to have people supported in community settings. By the time that the institution was officially closed down in 2009, all but the most severely disabled of the residents had been moved out.

I've never supported anyone who lived at Huronia Regional Centre in those mid-twentieth century years who talked very much about it. I often wonder how the former residents do as well as they do given what they've most likely lived through.

The image of the numbered gravestones on the Huronia Regional Centre grounds sticks with me. In these times of vital supports being cut (particularly in England, with the ongoing austerity measures), stories of blatant discrimination such as the hiring policies at Goodwill, and disability hate crime, it sometimes feels like we haven't moved far, on a social level, from a time when society saw disabled people as faceless entities who don't need or deserve to be anything more than a number on their tombstone. Perhaps this why Marie Slark was insistent that she wanted an apology from the government for what they did as well as the money. Read more here

And why not? She deserves one. Everyone who was in Huronia Regional Centre deserves one.

Skeptical Me

I'm not convinced about the sincerity of any apology that's made because a court mandates it. I guess it's a start.

But I just can't make myself feel as happy about the outcome of this lawsuit as I feel like should be. If the government actually cared, it would not have let the abuse that went on in Huronia Regional Centre go on for over half a decade. It would not have let the residents live in conditions of disrepair and squalor. It would not have denied for so long that what was going on was actually going on. It would acknowledge that a sum of $42000 per person is not compensation for decades of state-sanctioned torture.

It all seems like such a deviation from what a government's priorities should be - to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are kept safe - that I just can't wrap my head around it.

I like to think that things are getting better for disabled people, but some days it seems like there are still so many reasons to fear.