Opinion: BC still has a long way to go to be truly inclusive for people with disabilities

Oct 20 2022, 9:57 pm

Written for Daily Hive by Spencer van Vloten, a community advocate and nationally published writer from Vancouver.

Next time you are out, take a moment and scan your surroundings.

Take note of who you see, then take note of who you do not see.

Chances are you will not see one of the thousands of British Columbians with an intellectual disability.

British Columbians with developmental delays or conditions such as Down syndrome were once considered “incurables,” confined to institutions like Glendale, Tranquille, and Woodlands so they would be out of public view.

Woodlands institution in New Westminster. closed in 1996 /Inclusion BC

Woodlands institution in New Westminster. Closed in 1996/Inclusion BC

Here they lived in oppressive conditions, beaten with brooms, shackled, and forced into extended isolation, wasting away in confinement with no chance to enjoy even the smallest pleasures that many take for granted.

Along with Alberta, British Columbia had eugenic sterilization legislation, forcibly sterilizing disabled and mentally ill men and women out of fear that they would pollute society.

This legislation was ruled unconstitutional in 1986, but while exclusion is no longer so blatant, the community inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities still lags.

In BC schools, students with complex needs experience widespread exclusion, being left out of activities with classmates, segregated in cohorts where they have no contact with same-age peers, and scolded by teachers because they do not fit the same box as your average student.

In employment, sheltered workshops have seen disabled persons isolated from the rest of the workforce and paid less than their non-disabled counterparts.

People with intellectual disabilities also have smaller, more restricted social networks than non-disabled persons, contributing to higher rates of loneliness and depression.

And perhaps most unsettling, their lives are not valued the same: selective abortion for fetuses with Down syndrome is the status quo, with abortion rates of roughly 90 percent once Down syndrome is discovered.

Florence Girard was one of the unfortunate British Columbians whose story highlights this disparity.

The 54-year-old with Down syndrome was starved to death by her caregiver, Astrid Charlotte Dahl, in 2018. Flo is dead, but what punishment did Dahl receive when sentenced this September? A twelve-month conditional sentence which she is free to serve in the community.

Cases like this help entrench attitudes that people with disabilities exist separately from the rest of society: their lives are not as important, they are not people we make friends with or work with, and they are not like us.

They are just different.

But whatever differences exist, these are vastly outnumbered by what we share.

People with intellectual disabilities have goals to live independently, to pursue friendships and love, and to find work they enjoy – much to the benefit of employers and colleagues, I might add, who are proven to make gains in morale and productivity when disabled employees are part of integrated work environments.

People with intellectual disabilities are also insightful, funny, and kind, sharing many of the same interests in things like hockey, Netflix, music, and art that non-disabled persons do.

I have interviewed dozens of advocates with intellectual disabilities, commonly referred to as self-advocates, although they really advocate for everyone.

From Surrey to Vancouver to Chilliwack, Kamloops, and Cranbrook, whether it was Sherwin Strong, Joanne Gauthier, Tony Cuglietta, or Bryce Schaufelberger, what stands out most is their tireless drive to make their communities better places for all.

Why am I bringing all this up now? Because October is Community Inclusion Month.

Officially declared as such by the province, as well as Vancouver and several other cities, it is a time not only to celebrate the participation of persons with intellectual disabilities in our communities but of all people, regardless of our differences.

And it is needed now as much as ever.

In 2021, hate-motivated crimes increased in Canada by 27%. Those targeting religion jumped 67%, those targeting sexual orientation climbed 64% and those targeting race or ethnicity rose 6%.

With costs of living skyrocketing and the effects of the pandemic still being felt, people are frustrated and increasingly drawing lines between themselves and others.

But remember that no matter our differences, we are human beings with goals, feelings, and people who love us.

So ask yourself whether there is anything you can do to bring people together and promote inclusion, be it through hiring someone with a disability, volunteering with an organization for newcomers, or simply smiling and saying hello to that person you pass every day but have never spoken with.

Let’s embrace our similarities, celebrate our differences, and aim for a province where everyone can fully participate during Community Inclusion Month and beyond.

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