A brown brick two-storey building with a green roof over the first floor entrance.
The Quest Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Lower Sackville. Photo: questsociety.ca

More of the same was the theme of the day on Tuesday as the provincial Standing Committee on Community Services met to to discuss “A progress update on phasing out adult residential centre and regional rehabilitation centre facilities.”

A 2013 report adopted by the then-NDP government, known as “the roadmap,” called for transforming supports and services to people with disabilities, including “a clear commitment and… steps to phas[e] out, over a multi-year period, use of ARCs, RRCs and RCFs as a response to the residential needs of persons with disabilities, in concurrence with development of necessary community-based alternatives.” ARC, RRC, and RCF stand for adult residential centres, regional rehabilitation centres, and residential care facilities.

Nearly a decade later, and almost a year after the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal found the province is discriminating against people with disabilities by not providing adequate residential supports, there wasn’t much progress to report. Eight ARCs and RRCs remain open in the province, and, addressing the committee, Department of Community Services Deputy Minister Tracey Taweel admitted there has only been a minimal reduction in the number of people with disabilities living in the facilities.

And while she said “there is absolutely a commitment to closing large congregate settings,” she wouldn’t produce a timeline, and told the committee “I cannot commit that these facilities will be closed by 2023. They will not be closed by 2023.” One facility, Harbourside in Yarmouth, is slated to close by the end of this year.

That lack of commitment doesn’t surprise Sheila Wildeman. A Dalhousie University Law professor and member of the Community Homes Action Group (CHAG), Wildeman also appeared at the committee. “Government has committed to close institutions and build responsive supports countless times in recent decades and still not one institution has closed,” she said in an interview. “Still thousands are languishing in unsupportive and segregated environments.”

In 2013, there were 389 people with disabilities living in ARCs. Today that number is 342. In that same period, the number in RRCs has gone down by 10, from 166 to 156. Meanwhile, 372 people with disabilities are living in RCFs, down from 425. Calling the pace of proposed closures “glacial,” Wildeman noted the decline in the number of residents is a very small drop, and said it’s not clear how much of that reduction comes from residents having died.

“I think they should all be bulldozed,” Simon Snyder said in an interview when asked what he thought should happen to congregate housing facilities for people with disabilities.

Snyder was a resident of the Nova Scotia Youth Training Centre in Truro during the 1970s, and has talked about the abuse he experienced and witnessed while there. Snyder, who also addressed the committee, told the Examiner he thinks “they should close all the institutions, and there should be places in the community for the people now in them to live — either group homes or small-option… or some people could live in a supervised apartment with minimum help.”

Balding white man with white beard and glasses, smiling and wearing a shirt that says "Mud Hero".
Simon Snyder attended the Nova Scotia Youth Training Centre in the 1970s from the time he was 10 until he was 17. On Thursday, Snyder told the Standing Committee on Community Services all institutions for people with disabilites should be close. Photo: Contributed.

Snider also said deinstitutionalization must be accompanied by proper support. He recalled having support from his family, but “nothing” from the government after leaving the Youth Training Centre. As a result, he started drinking heavily to cope.

Snyder said that support should include money. Before he could get into subsidized housing five years ago, when he turned 55, Snyder says he was spending half of his income on rent, “and that wasn’t including heat.”

While Wildeman appreciates that the government has been consulting directly with people with disabilities, she said that what’s needed is “a clear plan with benchmarks and accountability tools,” and that the government’s seeming optimism about making progress “is to be viewed against the backdrop of a long history of non-progress.” That’s why she doesn’t think progress is likely without accountability.

“Accountability is more than reporting on the shuffling of a number of people in different headings… The kind of public reporting we need must give evidence of system transformation using clear benchmarks and timelines,” Wildeman said, “and those benchmarks have to themselves reflect and be grounded in human rights-based standards. So that means not only supporting people to meet their basic needs, but supporting them to participate as equals in education, work, community — the things that make life worth living.”

Speaking to the committee, disability rights activist and educator Vicky Levack said the lack of appropriate support “is a human rights violation” and that “we are not asking for charity, we are not asking for special treatment, we are asking to be given the rights that we are entitled to.”

Vicky Levack smiles from the sidewalk beside Meagher Park. She is sitting in her wheelchair with a purple sweater and dark sunglasses.
Vicky Levack told the Standing Committee on Community Services on Tuesday that the lack of appropriate support for people with disabilities “is a human rights violation. Photo: Leslie Amminson.

“I would like to point out this is not a housing issue, it’s a human rights issue,” she told the committee. “It’s not about bricks and mortar, it’s about providing the human resources people need to access what they need to live in community.”

Wildeman said the committee hearing itself was an example of the government failing to take the need of people with disabilities into account. “It’s a fairly small room, with limited space,” she said. “How do you build a space for equal participation in a policy forum like this one, where we have to submit our written presentations beforehand — Simon doesn’t read! — and four minutes was the original allocation all [three] of us [from CHAG] together were given? It’s not a terribly friendly environment for a range of ways of participating and communicating.”

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Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

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