Fighting the institutionalization of disabled Nova Scotians

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Marty Wexler is a social worker and one of the founding members of the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia, a cross-disability coalition of individuals and organizations. Claire McNeil is a lawyer. She has been involved in a number of cases challenging instances of institutionalization in Nova Scotia, and for many years has been an advisor to the coalition. Scott Neigh interviews them about the ongoing institutionalization of people with disabilities in Nova Scotia and about the coalition's two decades of work to end the practice and to push the provincial government to provide the supports that people with disabilities need to live as full members of their communities.

In Nova Scotia, for many people with disabilities, living in the community is currently not an option. They are given no choice but to live in institutions. Often, these institutions are not in their home communities and can be far from family and friends. And always, they have the impact of segregating disabled people, and of forcing them to live institutionalized lives when, with the proper supports, they would be perfectly capable of living in the community.

Many of the institutions are located in small, rural communities -- and some on the same sites as the "poor houses" of an earlier generation. Until 1995, these institutions were funded and governed by municipalities. When the provincial government took them over in that year, there was great hope among disability activists that this would lead to greater funding, more supports and a speedy process of deinstitutionalization. Instead, the province instituted a moratorium on the development of new support services for people with disabilities.

In 2000, the province commissioned a consultant to examine the situation. The consultant's report made a number of solid recommendations that disability advocates felt positive about. And which the province promptly refused to implement.

In response, a number of individuals as well as representatives of organizations came together and held an emergency meeting. They organized a rally and march on the legislature by more than 300 people soon after, but that was not enough to prompt the province to change its position. The people at that initial meeting became the nucleus of what would eventually become the Disability Rights Coalition of Nova Scotia.

In the years since that first demonstration, the coalition has done many different kinds of work. They have regularly lobbied politicians. They have done extensive media work. They have intervened in elections. They've done public education, both with their own members and with the public at large. They have used legal and political means to support inviduals in their fights to get out of institutions, and often they have won at that individual level.

Yet at the policy level, the government has engaged in a familiar cycle of consultation, research, report-writing, and either inaction or action too slow and small to substantially address the problem. The coalition, however, has refused to let the issue rest. In response to their consistent advocacy, in 2013 the government of the day introduced what was described as a "roadmap" -- so, an actual concrete plan -- to the development of suitable community-based services. Subsequently, all political parties in Nova Scotia have endorsed the roadmap. Yet six years later, very little has been done to implement it and very little has actually changed on the ground.

Since 2015, the single biggest focus for the coalition's work has been a human rights case. Three individuals who had been unnecessarily institutionalized brought complaints against the provincial government to the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, while as part of the same process the coalition brought a complaint alleging systemic human rights violations. The case was hotly contested by the province, and a decision was only handed down in March of this year. The individuals all won. However, there is relatively little precedence of Canadian tribunals or courts finding systemic discrimination, and the systemic case lost. The coalition, with support from a few national disability rights organizations, is filing an appeal.

Image: By Robert Devet of the Nova Scotia Advocate. Used with permission.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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