If you wander into the boardroom at Community Living North Grenville, you will come across a photo collage of around 20 people, many smiling and laughing, enjoying life. These are all people who Community Living North Grenville has helped integrate into the community, after living most of their lives in one of Ontario’s institutions for people with developmental disabilities. The collage was made to commemorate those people and to celebrate the closure of those institutions.
The first institution for people with developmental disabilities was opened in 1876 in Orillia, as the Orillia Asylum for Idiots. It was widely believed that people with developmental disabilities should be “put away”, and that asylums created a space for those that were “mentally deficient” that was beneficial for all. The facility in Orillia was the only large institution in Ontario until the 1950s. Plans to build another one in Smiths Falls date back to 1934; however, the Ontario Hospital School, later renamed the Rideau Regional Centre, wasn’t opened until 1951. It quickly became the second largest institution in Ontario, housing 2,650 residents at its peak. In 1971, at the height of the asylum era, Ontario had 20 institutions, housing more than 10,000 people.
Many factors led to the decline of institutions in Ontario, ending in the closing of the last three in 2009. Financially, the facilities were expensive to upkeep and, over the years, lack of funding led to continuing decline in the atmosphere and services of the homes.
Extremely poor conditions at the Huronia Regional Centre were brought to light in 1960 when Pierre Berton, a well-known journalist, visited the facility and wrote about the awful living conditions. Seventy years later, in 2010, a class action law suit against the province was initiated by former residents of the facility, who claimed to have experienced ongoing abuse while living there.
Looking at community living as a more viable option for people with developmental disabilities emerged in the late 1960s. The National Institute on Mental Retardation was formed in 1967 under the authority of the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded. The group quickly became a leader in research of developmental disability issues. They represented a strong willingness to develop innovative ideas that moved away from institutionalisation.
And so, the Community Living movement was born. It was known, at first, as “normalization”, and the idea was that people with developmental disabilities could survive and thrive in the same environments as everyone else. It was all about abandoning the stereotypes and ideologies of difference and substituting for it the principle of inclusion, an idea that is championed by the Community Living organization to this day.
It took a long time for this concept to take hold. Many people thought that embracing the idea of “normalization” was to deny the reality of those with developmental disabilities. However, as the concept became more mainstream, people realized that community integration was integral for creating a good quality of life for people with developmental disabilities.
Sandra McNamara is the Executive Director of Community Living North Grenville. She was there to witness the closing of the last institution in 2009, where several people from the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls were resettled into the community. They built a home on Kimberly Avenue in North Grenville, and facilitated the transition for four men who had been institutionalized for most of their lives. “It was a difficult transition, from living in a hospital setting,” she remembers, “with much resistance from families and community members.”
However, Sandra says the difference is evident between people who have been institutionalized and then make their home in the community. “People living in the community now are happier, healthier, and more energetic,” she says.
Community Living organizations across the province celebrate Community Living Month in May to raise awareness around community inclusion. Community Living North Grenville has eight homes in North Grenville where 28 people live with 24/7 support. They also provide supports and services to people living on their own, or at home with their families, in North Grenville and the surrounding area, over 110 in total. “Our goal is to help them live a fulfilling life in the community,” Sandra says. “They have the same needs and rights as anyone else.”
In December, 2013, Premier Kathleen Wynne delivered a public apology to the former residents of Regional Centres for the treatment they received while the facilities were open. The apology was part of the $35 million settlement that was approved in the class action law-suit against the province mentioned previously.
The closing of the institutions was not without opposition, with many saying it has opened the door for those who need a higher level of care to slip through the cracks. There have been instances of people with development disabilities getting in trouble with the law, and even ending up in jail. While this is a reality, Sandra says that most people with developmental disabilities can live happy and meaningful lives in the community, with the support of organizations like Community Living North Grenville.
The photo in Community Living North Grenville’s boardroom is a great reminder of the lives that Community Living has helped to improve, helping them create a life worth living inclusively in the community.