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Rights + Justice

The Rise of Disability Rights in BC

A new documentary covers struggles against eugenics, and for equity, alongside the history of Vancouver’s Developmental Disabilities Association.

Katie Hyslop 19 Oct

Katie Hyslop is a reporter for The Tyee. Reach them by email.

Much of the grassroots advocacy for kids with disabilities in B.C. today is driven by moms.

It should come as no surprise then that the Developmental Disabilities Association, which supports children and adults with developmental disabilities and celebrates its 70th anniversary in Vancouver this year, was started by a determined mom.

When Bea Purdy gave birth to her son Bobby in Vancouver in 1938, doctors told her Bobby had Down syndrome. They recommended she do what most parents of kids with similar diagnoses did at the time: institutionalize him for life at Woodlands School, a facility that warehoused children and adults with developmental disabilities (according to the Eugenics Archive, the school described itself as treating the "feeble-minded" and "lunatics").

Reports of the sexual and physical abuse suffered by residents at the hands of staff, as well as a high patient mortality rate, was leaking into the news even back then. Yet for most families there was no alternative support for raising children with additional needs, forcing many to institutionalize their loved ones.

But Purdy refused to part with Bobby, and in the early 1950s sought out other parents in the city who also refused to institutionalize their children. Together they created their own school and support system for families like theirs, which became the precursor to what we know today as the Developmental Disabilities Association.

Purdy’s story is just the beginning of Doing the Impossible: The Story of the Developmental Disabilities Association, a one-hour documentary on the history of the association released in August that viewers can watch for free on their website or on YouTube.

The film uses interviews with current and former Developmental Disabilities Association staff and clients, as well as archival footage from the organization and from Woodlands itself, to tell the association’s story. Paper cutout animation fills in where video footage isn't available, with eyeless patients and nurses depicting the sometimes monotonous, sometimes horrifying and always heartbreaking life in an institution.

After telling Purdy’s story, the documentary turns to the establishment of the association’s groundbreaking early childhood education programs, as well as the child respite and adult housing, education and workforce supports they offer. The timeline of the establishment of these programs is unfurled alongside the history of disability rights in Canada over the last 70 years.

In 1933, for example, just five years before Bobby Purdy was born, B.C. passed a law allowing for the forced sterilization of people with developmental disabilities, a practice allowed until the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it unconstitutional in 1986.

Prior to 1961, only children deemed “educatable” in British Columbia had their education funded by the provincial government, until Purdy, the Developmental Disabilities Association and other developmental disability organizations in the province successfully lobbied to change the rules. By the 1980s mainstream public schools began welcoming children with developmental disabilities, ending the need for separate public schools.

The number of institutions warehousing children and adults like Bobby Purdy in B.C. had grown from one to three by the 1970s. But by 1981 the province announced the institutions would close and the 1,500 people with developmental disabilities housed within them would be transitioned into the community with supports.

It was a huge undertaking, and even with help from organizations like the Developmental Disabilities Association, the last residents didn’t leave the last institution standing, Woodlands, until 1996.

The rights of disabled people are not yet on par with their non-disabled peers. People on disability assistance in B.C. live below the poverty line; lack accessible housing options; and there are increasing reports disabled people are choosing medically assisted death because they lack the medical, financial or housing support they need to live.

But as Doing the Impossible shows, much has changed over the last 70 years thanks to advocacy for children and adults with developmental disabilities, and from parents like Bea Purdy.

And the Developmental Disabilities Association itself has gone through necessary change, too. Today, the organization helps its members achieve their individual life goals and dreams, rather than simply trying to tick off the basics of ensuring their members have a job and a place to live.

This came about in large part because of self-advocacy by people with developmental disabilities who wanted “a seat at the table,” as the documentary puts it, starting in the late 1990s.

For some members this has included having a seat on the association’s board of directors. However, while the current board roster includes six parents of children with disabilities or disorders, it does not currently include people with lived experience.

As Dana Brynelsen, one of the first early childhood educators with the association points out in the film, “There’s always more we can do.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice, Film

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