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By Sid Ryan

It was the early 1960s. As a young kid in Dublin — with the arse hanging out of my trousers — I chased down the street with a horde of other kids, making fun of a man being pushed about in a makeshift wheelchair.

He had an entourage of older kids with him, knocking on doors selling Christmas cards. His body was contorted and his speech unintelligible.

A couple of years later, the Christian Brothers herded the older kids in our school into the concert hall for an art exhibition. Sitting on the stage, with his left shoe and sock removed, was Christy Brown. With the paintbrush clasped firmly between the toes on his left foot, he proceeded to paint a giant Christmas card. His body jerked from side to side as he grunted words we could not understand.

Christy Brown died in 1981 at age 49, but not before he had authored several books, including the world famous My Left Foot.

Brown had cerebral palsy and suffered the prejudice of people of all ages who could not see past his disability. Yet he managed to scale magnificent heights in the literary world. He left his mark as a beacon to all who dare question the contributions persons with disabilities — physical and intellectual — can make in enriching our lives.

Unfortunately, the potential contributions of many individuals are constrained in Ontario today, as a growing army of persons with developmental disabilities are shuffled and downloaded from the old provincial institutions to nursing homes because of a lack of community supports.

There are currently 1,600 residents with developmental disabilities in Ontario nursing homes.  Their average age is 52, a full 31 years younger than their elderly roommates and neighbours.

In general, nursing home staff are not equipped to deal with the multiple challenges presented by this downloading. Three years ago, I’ve been told, two younger adults with developmental disabilities were admitted to a Peterborough area nursing home. When first they arrived, they were able to walk, talk and participate in activities. Today, they are basically confined to geriatric-type wheelchairs, unable to walk or talk due to lack of trained staff and activities to support them.

Public hearings earlier this month at the province’s Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs unleashed a torrent of mind-numbing stories from a legion of parents, frontline workers and employers. They complained about the desperate shortage of spaces in residential group homes and day programs. The gut-wrenching pleas from elderly parents, worried stiff about who will look after their adult children when they pass on, left an indelible mark on my soul.

Most if not all of these parents have struggled against the system all of their lives. They are the generation that fought the gallant battles, advocating for community living for persons with developmental disabilities. Now, their own children are adults and there’s no room for them to live in the community.

In Toronto, there is a backlog of 2,500 people waiting for space in residential home programs. The list grows by about 12% annually. Eleven parents on that waiting list are over 90 years old; 70 are over the age of 80.

We cannot allow these brave souls go to their graves without peace of mind. They need to know that our generation will notice the beacon that shines so brilliantly from their children. And that means putting enough money into the system to provide needed community supports.

At the standing committee hearings, advocates of community living have been calling for an infusion of about $200 million. Finance Minister Greg Sorbara has a golden opportunity to use his upcoming budget to recognize the contribution thousands of people with developmental disabilities make to the rich fabric of Ontario communities. I hope he has heard their message and provides the support they need to live in the community and not on its sidelines.