HALIFAX – Nova Scotia’s government used “ableist” reasoning when it closed a program that provided supported housing for people with intellectual disabilities, a nationally recognized expert on disability rights testified Monday.
Catherine Frazee, professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s school of disability studies, told a human rights inquiry Monday that a freeze on creating “small options” supported housing in the early 1990s stemmed from a form of discrimination similar to sexism or racism.
Small-options homes are small housing units, usually with three or four residents, where day-to-day support is provided to people with intellectual disabilities to allow them to live in their community.
Frazee argued the freeze on creating the homes meant residents could be condemned to live in their aging parents’ basements, in abusive arrangements, or “far down the corridors of institutional abandonment.”
Frazee, who uses a wheelchair, repeatedly referred to the policy as “ableist,” meaning a bias where the needs of people who may lack some mental and physical abilities aren’t given the same regard as the non-disabled majority.
The issue of the small-options homes and their availability has been at the heart of the ground-breaking human rights hearing that has heard 14 days of testimony before chairman J. Walter Thompson.
The inquiry is considering whether the Department of Community Services violated the Human Rights Act by housing Joseph Delaney and Beth MacLean in a hospital-like, institutional setting at the Emerald Hall psychiatric ward in Halifax for over a decade.
Their years of waiting have occurred despite psychiatrists having medically discharged them and recommended a home in the community.
For Frazee, a former chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, the moratorium on small-options homes was “an expression of an austerity logic,” and based largely on a drive to save money.
However, the province has said its policy has shifted and it is now attempting to provide more small options homes to people with intellectual disabilities who have been living in institutions.
Joe Rudderham, the executive director of the Disability Supports Program, said since he’s been the director his program has been working to create new small option homes, and there is no longer a moratorium.
“We have eight on the go for the next year,” he said in an interview after the hearings concluded for the day.
“Small option homes is one option in our array of supports and services,” he said, adding there are also programs that help people live on their own or with the support of their families.
As of early March, there were 504 people awaiting some form of support from the Department of Community Services, and 1,024 people awaiting a transfer to a different housing option or location.
Frazee, a former chair of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, said in a written report provided to the inquiry that the Nova Scotia freeze directly led to the current-day backlogs.
She also testified the government policy made the problem appear to the public as one that was too expensive to fix, leading citizens to lose sight of the original flawed philosophy that created the waiting lists.
“The size of the problem becomes the problem itself,” she said.
She also argued there has been a human cost to taking away the possibility of small-options homes and placing people in large institutions.
“The research is clear and uncontested that institutional arrangements that … cause great psychological and in many cases physical harm to people,” she said.
Frazee told her own personal story of how she lived in an institution as a girl, explaining how it was only when she was placed in the school system that she learned to direct her own life.
She said people who could not hear were employed to be “pushers” of children in wheelchairs at her institution, and therefore she was unable to tell them where she wished to go.
“It’s important to understand how deeply thwarted our natural development is by segregation. When we isolate people … year after year after year, the muscles of self expression atrophies,” she testified.
Rudderham said his department has a commitment to move away from larger facilities.
In the last provincial budget, the Liberal government announced that there is an additional $2.1 million to help create small options homes and group homes.
The Department of Community Services has said there’s $16.2 million in additional funding to support the transitions, with about $10 million to cope with a fresh influx of people into the province’s disability programs.
However, the Community Homes Action Group has argued in a recent letter to the province’s finance minister that the pace of creating new community homes is too slow.
The group has recommended to the finance minister that to keep up with the pace of demand, at least 25 new small options homes are needed each year for the next three years.
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