N.S. system for people with disabilities had dark roots, expert tells inquiry

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia’s system to support people with intellectual disabilities has dark roots in a poorhouse system that led to attitudes they should remain segregated and controlled, a human rights inquiry was told Tuesday.

The inquiry is looking at whether two Nova Scotians with disabilities have the right to live in supported housing — meaning, in the community, rather than institutions and psychiatric facilities.

Michael Bach, a researcher and advocate for inclusion, was called to testify by the Disability Rights Coalition, an advocacy group for people with disabilities that is a complainant in the proceeding.

Bach was hired in 2012 by the former NDP government to help transform its system for people with disabilities, and to help close its remaining institutions.

After outlining the repeated reports and studies calling for the changes over several decades, Bach told lawyer Claire McNeil about the history of poorhouses, where people lived in crowded settings away from the main community.

He said that approach changed for most poor people at the beginning of the 20th century, as they were allowed to move into the community with income supports.

But the same shift didn’t occur as quickly for people with disabilities, as large facilities with municipal boards of directors continued operating around the province.

“Who gets left is those who had more significant needs and don’t have the income to purchase the supports they needed to live in communities on their own,” Bach said.

He said the notion of a person having little control over their own lives lies in this history.

An independent report on an incident at the former Braemore facility in Sydney, N.S., was also a big factor in the desire for change, he said.

The Canadian Press had reported on a 2010 case in which an adult man with autism was locked alone in a constantly lit room at the adult residential centre for 15 days with occasional breaks. A provincial investigation said videos constantly monitored him, and on several occasions, he urinated in a corner when he was unable to get a staff member’s attention.

As a ”people-centred approach” became more common around the world, Bach said Nova Scotia started to realize change was necessary.

He said the view of provincial officials who hired him was that a “transformation” had to occur.

“There wasn’t a notion of ‘Let’s do some tinkering with the system, let’s do some incremental changes,’” he said during testimony before inquiry chairperson J. Walter Thompson.

“There was a recognition it needed to be transformed,” he said.

However, the inquiry has heard opening arguments from the lawyers representing people with intellectual disabilities that this transformation is incomplete, particularly in the case of their clients.

Forty-five-year-old Joseph Delaney and 46-year-old Beth MacLean say they should be permitted to move from the hospital-like settings into small homes where assistance is provided in areas such as meals and personal care.

A third complainant, Sheila Livingstone, died as the case wound its way through various delays, but her story will be told by family members and the complainants’ lawyer.

There were 504 people awaiting some form of support from the Department of Community Services as of last Thursday, and 1,024 people awaiting a transfer to a different housing option or location.

A Justice Department lawyer at the hearing has said the province may agree with the principle of providing supports, but it’s not necessarily a human rights violation for the province to refuse funding or eliminate waiting lists.

The province also says it is working to improve its Disability Support Program and to create more small-options homes.

The province’s lawyer is expected to cross examine Bach on Wednesday, while the lawyer for the two complainants with intellectual disabilities is expected to call his first witnesses.

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