Developmental disability homes to be closed

By RICHARD MACKIE AND MARGARET PHILP

The Globe and Mail, Friday, Sep 10, 2004

Peter Park spent 18 of his 63 years in an institution because his epilepsy was judged a developmental disability requiring round-the-clock care. Yesterday, he cheered an Ontario government announcement that it will close three remaining institutions for people with developmental disabilities, remnants of a bygone era.

"No one should live in a place not of their choosing, be forced to go to the bathroom on a schedule, have everything done on a schedule. Get up at 6 o'clock whether you have to or not. Go to bed at 9 o'clock whether you have to or not. All these things," Mr. Park told reporters.

He applauded the announcement by Social Services Minister Sandra Pupatello that institutions in Smiths Falls, Orillia and Blenheim will be closed by March, 2009. They house about 1,000 people and employ 2,200 staff, whose paycheques are important to the local economies.

Over the next three years, Ms. Pupatello said her ministry will spend $110-million on community services for the 1,000 residents, including $70-million to build new housing for them, some of it with 24-hour care. The province also is launching a wholesale review of the system serving people with developmental disabilities.

"We will complete a long-standing journey from an institution-based service system for people with developmental disabilities to a community-based system that promotes inclusion, independence and choice," Ms. Pupatello said.

The move will allow residents of the three institutions the chance to follow in Mr. Park's footsteps.

"I wanted to live a real life like my older brother and my older sister and set my own agenda. I didn't want to have somebody telling me what to do," said Mr. Park, who now lives in a private home with his wife. In the community, he said, "you have different life experiences and so you are a better person as a result."

Disability advocates and academics alike are thrilled by the prospect of Canada's most populous province closing institutions that have isolated people with disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism from the rest of society.

"For Ontario, with the largest number of people institutionalized, to make the financial and political commitment to do this bodes well for finishing the job of closing institutions in this country," said Michael Bach, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living.

He said the move "sends a really important signal and will really provide momentum to this effort."

Research shows the cost of running institutions to be about the same as supporting disabled people to live in their communities.

Only British Columbia and Newfoundland have closed institutions for the developmentally disabled, although other provinces have pledged to do so.

The three sprawling Ontario institutions, once home to thousands of people, now house only a few hundred residents each.

"From a practical point of view, it really does not make sense for the Ontario taxpayers to be paying for about 1,000 people to be living in three enormous facilities," said Ivan Brown, a social work professor at the University of Toronto with expertise in developmental disability issues. "They're very expensive to run."

Still, the announcement met with stiff criticism from New Democratic Party critic Gilles Bisson and Leah Casselman, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents many of the workers at the three sites.

"The loss of these jobs is an economic earthquake to Orillia, Smiths Falls and Blenheim. This is a total of $84-million being taken out of Ontario's economy. We're talking about nearly 2,000 jobs that will leave these communities and never return," Ms. Casselman said.

The move to deinstitutionalize in Ontario began almost 30 years ago but stalled over the past decade. Since 1975, 6,000 people have been moved out of 13 institutions to live in communities across the province. The Ontario government now spends more than $1-billion annually to provide financial and social supports to approximately 39,000 adults with developmental disabilities, with most of the money flowing through community organizations.

Mr. Park is optimistic that the people slated to move out of the institutions will fare better than he did when he returned to the community in 1978.

"If the services that are there today had been there in the '40s and '50s, I would not have ever had to be in an institution."