Living just down the road from Michener Centre as a child, Michael Dawe was used to seeing residents walking the streets of his Michener Hill neighbourhood and occasionally stopping for a visit. So Dawe was unperturbed one day, decades ago, when he heard banging in the kitchen of his family home and found a Michener resident vigorously opening and shutting cupboards.
“She’d like to bolt every once in a while,” he says with a laugh, “Sometimes she got quite far before someone would phone that ‘She’s over here.’”
For Dawe and his neighbours, Michener and its charges — the higher functioning residents, at least — were never that foreign.
For others in the community, though, the buildings on the hill and the people who lived in them were segregated for a reason.
Societal attitudes changed regarding treatment of people with developmental disabilities in the 1960s, and by the early ‘70s, residents were leaving Michener at a rate of about 140 per year as group homes became de rigueur. But the 20 group homes that are today part of Michener’s south site are only located there because in the mid-70s some Red Deer residents feared that a plan to disperse the homes across the city would endanger their neighbourhoods. They raised enough of a fuss that the homes were built clustered together near the institution they were partially replacing.
As one 1974 letter writer to the Advocate put it, “… as a result (of the new policy) people with the intelligence of minus 10 years in age are roaming the streets, sitting in the bars or breaking and entering while an extreme few are doing not too badly with the aid of welfare and a lot of patience from some of the kinder people in our city.”
Judy Lytton (nee Faulkner) had been allowed to leave the old Provincial Training School in the mid-60s after she earned her hairdressing licence. Confined at the centre because she was a cross-eyed ward of the government, Lytton had no mental handicap and was deemed to be of normal intelligence during her time in Red Deer.
She became a very skilled coiffeuse by age 20, but knew she could not continue in the profession because of her past and the shame associated with handicaps at the time.
“I had been put on the spot a few times — ‘Where did you go to school?’ and ‘Where do your parents live?’ — and I thought ‘Oh my god, no I can’t even stump my way out of this.’ Now I could, but then I couldn’t even think to say ‘Oh, I went to school in Calgary or Lethbridge.’ I just froze right on the spot and I thought ‘Oh my god, I can’t continue to hairdress’ because it’s very personal. You’re everybody’s nurse, doctor, psychiatrist, teacher, you’re everybody’s everything. And I loved it, but when it came down to the crunch, nope, I couldn’t face it, because it was too painful,” said Lytton.
She moved to Edmonton from Leduc and settled into a series of good jobs and a supportive social circle, but it would not be until after Leilani Muir sued the government in 1995 that Lytton felt confident enough to speak of her past to more than just her close friends.
Harold Barnes can tell you the exact moment he was admitted to Michener — “October 8, 1965 . . . 2:15 in the afternoon” — and he’s pretty sure his last day there was Jan. 26, 1971. He and others will tell you that he should never have been confined to the centre just because he had cerebral palsy. Yet the 62-year-old knows that at the time, Michener was the safest place for him.
In his post-Michener years, Barnes lived in a few group homes and enrolled in a college program that taught him to read. Later, he would live in the old Court House Inn downtown. After some training through Cosmos, Barnes got a job at Walmart as a greeter around 1995, a job he still goes to three times a week — unless he is off travelling across the country to take in the Grey Cup, Brier, or some other sporting event.
The move to a group home allowed him more freedom, he says; when he wanted to go out and do something, he no longer had to do so as part of a big group. Nowadays he lives in a seniors lodge in West Park and hands out business cards for ‘H. Barnes Enterprizes.’
Barnes is one of hundreds of ex-Michener residents who took to advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities after leaving the institution. Of all those people, Doreen Befus stands alone. She was, after all, the only one to have lunched with the Queen when Her Royal Highness came to Red Deer in 1990.
Befus was put up for adoption as an infant and bounced around between foster homes before she arrived at Michener, where she would spend her formative years. When she left in 1947 at age 21 to work on farms around Alberta and B.C., she entered into a world that was puzzling to her. Though she had no real mental handicap, the social isolation that she grew up with in Michener Centre stunted her development. It was not until 1977 that she was able to establish herself living independently in Red Deer.
Over the next two-and-a-half decades before she died in 2001, Befus was indefatigable in her efforts to improve the lives of those with handicaps. She peppered the Advocate’s letters page with missives reminding readers, businesses, and governments to consider the rights of the disabled and in 1983 a documentary film was made on her life ,which saw her back at Michener and in the community sharing her infectuousness with others.
She travelled the country telling her story and advocating for rights, earning many awards for her work. Her invitation to be among 50 people to dine with the Queen stemmed from those efforts.
What made her so special, says friend and former Michener chaplain Stuart Fraser, is that the Queen meant no more to Doreen than a severely handicapped Red Deerian did.
“She treated everybody with respect and nobody with awe,” he said upon her passing in 2001.
Today, Persons with Developmental Disabilities Central doles out two annual awards in Doreen’s honour — for self-advocacy work and leadership.
Another former resident who moved into the community and made himself known was the free-spirited music lover Jackie Wyllie. His mane of long white hair, flowing as he rode his golf cart-style three-wheeler down the middle of downtown streets, made him immediately recognizable. Though only 1.5 metres (five feet) tall, Wyllie had a big personality, evidenced when an Advocate reporter visited him in hospital after a scooter mishap. Wyllie insisted that, birth records be damned, he was about to turn 47, not 77.
Despite the protestations of others, Wyllie checked himself out of Michener in 1978 after nearly 50 years there and set himself up in a downtown apartment. With a mild handicap, life on his own had its challenges. Wyllie couldn’t quite grasp the concept that he needed to regularly charge his scooter batteries and so the machine once lost juice on a highway near Rimbey, leaving him and a friend to sleep a night in the ditch before a passerby hauled them back to Red Deer.
It was through music that Wyllie thrived. In 1993, he set up his portable keyboard outside the Toronto Dominion bank downtown and busked, raising $150. That money, plus some local business support, allowed him to put out a Christmas album in 1995 of his organ music.
Shortly before he passed away in 2003, Wyllie had decided that it was time to learn how to play the bagpipes, an admirable ambition for an 84-year-old.