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The 1980's

80's... what a decade!

Perhaps it only seems so to those of us who lived in those tumultuous times. It began with the United Nations designating 1981 as the International Year of the Disabled which provided numerous opportunities to raise awareness about the rights of people living with a disability.

At the B.C. Association for the Mentally Retarded (BCAMR), we seized the year to present a public awareness campaign. Sponsored by the B.C. Association of Public Broadcasters, under the creative direction of Miles Ramsay and Rod Gunn, the "My Turn" campaign featured self advocates living in the community and working at paid employment, an almost unheard of event in the history of the AMR movement. Hailed as 'One of the most outstanding campaigns of its kind in North America", the self advocates involved presented their own message which was broadcast throughout the province. Little did we know then how frequently the media would be used in the coming years to help advance the rights of individuals with mental handicaps and their families.

In the fall of 1981 the Provincial Cabinet announced that the institutions of Woodlands, Glendale and Tranquille would be phased out within the following ten years. The Speech from the Throne acknowledged the work of the BCAMR and promised support to provide community based services. However, it wasn’t until 1983 that the actual process began.

In the meantime, many exciting developments were happening with self advocacy. In 1982, 35 self advocates from all over B.C. met at Hero’s Restaurant in Vancouver for a two-day leadership training workshop. The enthusiasm from this session was instrumental in increasing the number of People First/Self Advocacy Groups throughout the province to 18 and it led directly to a pre-conference day for self advocates at the 1983 AGM. What a day that was! There had never been so many self advocates at a conference before and it was the same AGM where the membership voted to change our name to British Columbians for Mentally Handicapped People - BCMHP. This name change reflected our desire to eliminate the word "retarded" from our identity as an organization and to respect the pain many self advocates felt from living under that label.

In July 1983, the B.C. government announced that Tranquille, outside Kamloops, would be closed by December '84. This left a mere 18 months to move more than 300 people back to community. It was a daunting task but it was attacked with gusto. Dot Ewen was hired to assist local associations to develop support services for those who would be returning to the community. The "Tranquille Bulletins" were created to keep all the federation members aware of new developments throughout the province. The Ministry of Social Services and Housing was persuaded to fund community developers to assist local associations in their task.

Right in the middle of all this activity, the axe fell. People who used wheelchairs were given the label "extended care eligible" which meant that they would be moved to a hospital instead of the community simply because they could not transfer from a chair to a bed without assistance.

The result was a major confrontation with government. A blockade was erected at the entrance to Tranquille. More than fifty family members, self advocates, and supporters from all over the province gathered in the pre-dawn rain to protest the transfer of 25 individuals who were being moved to Glendale instead of to the community. In the days and weeks that followed we made headlines, we held vigils, we wrote letters, and we demanded that those individuals be given the right to return home. Finally, on September 23, 1985 then Minister of Health Jim Neilson announced a change in policy that would allow those people labelled "extended care eligible" to live in group homes.

What a relief to the families involved, the local associations and BCMHP who had supported them. In time, the success of these community placements led to changes in the Community Care Regulations to allow individuals who use wheelchairs to live in the community. It also led to the formation of a new division in the Ministry of Health - Services to the Handicapped (STTH). Unique in its structure and approach, this division was destined to pioneer new ways of supporting individuals with complex needs to live in the community. Family involvement was respected by the Division as an important part of the planning process.

This emphasis on family involvement was another important thrust of the 80’s. Picking up on a study that verified that the most cost effective ways of caring for children with severe handicaps is in their own home with their families, BCMHP undertook a massive lobby to support families. For almost all of the decade, we worked to gain recognition of the importance of the role of families in the lives of their handicapped children. Family Support Committees encouraged the development of Pilot Parent and Parent to Parent Groups throughout the province. In the mid 80’s the Family Support Institute (FSI) was born and eventually became an independent society. Together BCMHP and FSI were responsible for the formation of the Associate Family Program, which paid associate families to care for children with severe disabilities who were housed in hospitals, and the At Home Program which provided families with respite support and assistance with extraordinary purchases.

From the realization that families were the experts regarding their children, it was not a very big leap to the realization that perhaps the individuals with the label would know what would be best for themselves. This meant education and training in self advocacy to assist people in learning leadership and decision-making skills.

The influence of self advocates grew in leaps and bounds. Funding for the "Rights Now!" project (see photo above) to develop strong and vital self help organizations and a provincial network of self advocacy groups, was sought and received from Health and Welfare Canada for three years, and then extended to five. The three communities chosen for the project were Mission, Duncan and Parksville. The staff involved in the project included Barb Goode, a self advocate who was instrumental in helping other self advocates to tell their stories. These stories spoke of loneliness, of not being listened to, and of the need for friends. Doug Walls, President of BCMHP from 86 - 89 listened.

Self advocates soon became members of every BCMHP committee. We also pledged $30,000 to the direct support of self advocates within the federation which enabled their committee to meet eight times per year, to prepare for board meetings and to advocate on their own issues. One of the first issues they brought to the government’s attention was the fact that they lived in poverty. They wanted to access the enhanced earning capabilities open to regular GAIN recipients and within a year they succeeded. Not only did they achieve their original goal, the time limit on the qualification for exemptions was removed altogether. The committee’s original name was the President’s Advisory Committee. However, the self advocates preferred to be known as the Caucus, a name with much more political clout! So in 1987 the Self Advocacy Caucus was born.

Although self advocacy was steadily gaining influence and respect within our organization we had not yet dealt with the lack of friendship in many people’s lives. For this reason, funding for the 'John McKnight Project’ was sought and received. Two communities, Powell River and Prince George, were chosen to demonstrate ways in which people with mental handicaps could be included in community life. The results of the two year project showed how the lives of the people involved were transformed and their communities enhanced, principally through friendships.

When we reached the end of the decade, the Caucus was beginning to take on a variety of projects. In 1989, self advocates began publishing their own quarterly newsletter, ‘The Voice’, which set the stage for several plain language publications on a variety of topics that would follow. Self advocates were also becoming an important part of our training initiatives for social workers, schools, and police cadets. Also in addition to the minimum four self advocates required by our constitution to sit on the BCMHP Board, the Caucus was now electing an additional six members from the Caucus to sit as ex-officio members.

Self advocates were becoming more and more visible on boards and in their own groups, but what about the majority who weren’t on boards? What did their day look like? This was a time when massive changes were taking place in day programs and Adult Special Education policy, which was developed to ensure resources at B.C.’s 15 community colleges would be available to local associations and individuals with mental and physical handicaps. Grants to research vocational options and to assist in the employment of individuals were also obtained. BCMHP’s "Work Stations in Industry", a three year project to develop work and training enclaves in industry, was extremely successful in demonstrating the consistency and reliability of the people involved, many of whom received regular employment. Vocational Bulletins kept all the federation aware of the progress being made. A resource manual and a ‘How To’ kit was prepared in cooperation with the Vancouver-Richmond Association.

Then, in 1987 the closures of Woodlands and Glendale were announced. The government’s break neck speed, however, excluded adequate involvement from families. Neither was enough thought given to the monitoring of pri-care contractors. BCMHP called for, and won, a freeze on deinstitutionalization activity to resolve these, and other issues. The Provincial Advisory Committee (PAC) was formed with representation from both for-profit and non-profit service providers, self advocates, family groups, and government.

Progress in education didn’t take a back seat in this decade. The federation was successful in preventing cuts in Special Education budgets during the economic downturn in the early 80’s. The province wide response to the Royal Commission on Education, as well as the work of various government committees, on which we had strong representation, were instrumental in achieving a Ministerial Order in the regulations of the new School Act which ensures placement for our children in their neighbourhood school in a regular classroom.

Legal issues, at times, dominated the work of BCMHP. We cooperated with the Pacific Association of Autistic Citizens (PAAC) in the Warren Lowe case. We worked with the family in the Arron Bales case. We took a stand with the Ministry against the family and the medical profession in the Stephen Dawson case and were successful in saving his life.

Then in 1989, we became the B.C. Association for Community Living - making our stated purpose the substance of our identity.

What a power this federation has been! Although the way has not been easy we have pulled together well in those times and circumstances that mattered most. As Doug Walls said in his report to the 88 AGM "It should be readily apparent that we accomplished more when we worked together... We have to keep reminding each other, every chance we get, that by working together, talking to each other, planning jointly rather than independently, we build on our strengths."

As we journey through the 90’s it is important to remember that our primary purpose continues to be seeking the goal of equality for our daughters, our sons, our family members, our friends and all those who wish to live a full life as active and equal citizens in communities throughout B.C.