After returning from WW2, my father Alec started a magazine called Canadian Digest. The August 1946 issue contains a condensed version of an article published in Canadian Business, entitled “Handicaps” Need Not Be Handicaps.” The story describes how staff from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs persuade skeptical employers to hire injured vets – with great success. The strategy was to focus on valuable abilities, and then make necessary accommodations for any disabilities. If a placement did not work out, the veteran was re-assessed, and a more suitable position was found.
I thought of this article again recently when I was watching a video of Steve Paikin interviewing Mark Wafer. Enabling the Disabled. Mark owns several Tim Hortons franchises in Toronto, and has earned a reputation over the years for hiring disabled people, particularly those with an intellectual disability. He covers many of the points made in the article mentioned above. For instance, it is not a matter of hiring folks because you feel sorry for them. You take them on because you see certain skills and you believe they can become valuable members of the team. Although the so-called disabilities need to be accommodated, they often turn out to be a significant benefit. At one point, Mark says that he feels like he is hiring the “social fabric of the community.” If developmentally disabled people are welcomed and included, they become a powerful community-building force.
In a way, employing people with developmental disability is the easy part. The real challenge is overcoming the prejudices implicit in conventional hiring practices. We need more employers like Mark!
Note: Mark himself has a severe hearing impairment. He has learned some sign language, but he prefers not to use it because it is so limiting. He has developed lip-reading skills, and is able to communicate effectively in most public settings.
A recent paper published in the USA reviews several decades of research that proves the benefits of living in small-scale community settings. (Community Living and Participation for People with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: What the Research Tells Us) The studies show conclusively that adults with developmental disability have much better life outcomes when they have choice about where they live and what they like to do. They are also more likely to become full participants and net contributors to the life of their wider community. For these reasons, large-scale institutions are pretty much a thing of the past.
Waiting for… ???
The same case could be – and has been – made for our elders. Yes, they often need more care and support as they get older, but that in itself is not a case for institutionalization. Lack of mobility, a communication disability or frail health do not reduce a person’s value! (Physicist Stephen Hawking comes to mind as an example.) We do great harm to society when we park these folks in “nursing homes,” but this is now done as a matter of course.
Why do we welcome people with developmental disabilities with open arms – and shun our elders? Are we being driven by fears – by denial of our own mortality? Out of sight, out of mind? No, let us SEE more of our elders, and welcome them back into our minds.
Joyce Elming, 83
In a recent series of three articles, Lisa Queen describes many of the ups and downs – the highs and lows – of growing old in York Region. (See links at the end of this post.) It is remarkable how much dedicated effort, ingenuity and heartfelt concern can be found in all corners of our region. There are indeed many hands hard at work.
It is also apparent, however, that seniors’ isolation is growing, and reported cases of elder abuse are becoming more frequent. In spite of strenuous efforts, things don’t seem to be improving for many folks. What’s missing?
One could say that the psycho-social fabric of community is breaking down. Traditional networks of social fellowship and mutuality are disappearing and being replaced by a confusing array of programs and services. Of course, the service providers do the best they can, but it is really difficult to cope with the growing burden of complex policies and regulations. The human relationships just get lost in the shuffle.
The best way to get things back on track is to become stronger advocates for community living. Of course we should help folks stay in their private homes if that works for them, but we should also be helping them to consider options – communities like Hesperus Village for instance, Peer support goes along way to reducing the need for expensive funded services – and restores the magic healing power of human contact.
York Region senior population to increase 148% over 2 decades
York Region senior citizens face highs, lows of aging
York Region senior caregivers share ups, downs
In recent weeks I have been doing research about the the growing number of senior citizens who are ‘isolated and disconnected from their communities. It is difficult to identify direct causes ; the problem is systemic. The psychosocial fabric of our communities is weakening, and vulnerable people are simply being left out. This serious situation is getting more attention and there are many efforts to remedy the situation (e.g. the recent Request For Proposals from the federal New Horizons Program).
However, two recent news stories highlight well-intentioned projects that are actually creating more problems, at least in the short term.
Seniors being evicted as renovation looms at Unionville’s Heritage Village. The good news is that lots of new units of affordable housing for seniors are coming on stream. The bad news is that 110 vulnerable tenants are being evicted, and the new units will not be onstream until 2020. I am sure that every effort will be made to help the tenants make a transition. However, I am concerned that planners – even those who are dedicated to housing vulnerable people – underestimate the effects of shocks like this. Surely we can do better.
State of the art Alzheimer’s facility in Toronto lacks money, patients. This building with all the latest bells and whistles was opened with fanfare 18 months ago. The story goes into detail about the lack of transparency (competence?) in management and governance matters. There is also the all-to-familiar cry from a failed CEO for a fat payout. The real story for me, however, is what is NOT said. What has life been like for residents during these 18 months of confusion? What is the quality of care now, when the building is up for sale? How do the families feel?
When will we ever learn that buildings and technology are only a part – and not the heart – of the solution?
In partnership with United Way Toronto, PEPSO recently published The Precarity Penalty: Employment Precarity’s Impact on Individuals, Families and Communities and What to do about It. People are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet, even when working several jobs. The researchers make the case that conventional employment statistics only tell part of the story. Even when the economy “strengthens,” large segments of the workforce continue to struggle.
A team of researchers at York University have recently published a paper that explores employment precarity in a specific sector: Liminality in Ontario’s long-term care facilities: Private companions’ care work in the space ‘betwixt and between‘. Government regulations and labour standards cover much of the work done in the Long Term Care sector, but there is a growing demand for paid “companions” – people hired by families to care for loved ones at risk of neglect. In many cases, these arrangements work very well. However, the researchers make the case that the employment situation of many (if not most) of the companions is precarious, and that the current system is simply not sustainable.
Reading these reports, I learned that “liminality” is no longer something we observe only at the edges of our society. More and more people with professional training and a strong work ethic are being pushed down and exploited. So the question arises: How do we demonstrate to employers – institutional and private – the benefits of returning to fair and stable employment practices?
Self-reliance and independence are cherished values in our society, and rightly so. Practicing these values, we discover freedom, and feel empowered to do great things. Less obvious, however, is the fact we only learn this through our experiences in society with others.
An old story comes to mind. There was once a man, who lived in a hut in the bush away from the village. He lived alone, independent and self-reliant, and was called a hermit. One day, for trade purposes it was decided to move the village. Perhaps it will come as no surprise to hear that the hermit followed, and built another hut in the bush behind the new village. It’s just not possible to be a hermit without a village nearby.
The current issue of Lapham’s Quarterly gives another good example. Nigerian storyteller Chinua Achebe dismisses the Western “solutions” to poverty in Africa, which are based on one-sided self-reliance. He quotes the Bantu declaration:
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu
(A human is human because of other humans)
He goes on to say that our humanity is contingent on the humanity of our fellows. No person or group can be human alone. We arise above the animal together, or not at all.
Headline in today’s London Free Press: Action needed to stop elder abuse: Advocates. The article describes many examples of elder abuse by caregivers, adult children, and anonymous predators, and calls for legislation to require mandatory reporting of all cases of suspected elder abuse. This is a great recommendation, as far as it goes.
I would also like to suggest that next year, the event be renamed, World Elder Awareness Day. It seems to me that if we simply paid more attention to the elders, and took a real interest in their wisdom and aspirations, we would soon see some very different outcomes.
If we keep the elders in our neighbourhoods, it will help to scare away the bad guys. For a great example of a successful project, see my earlier post, Our Voices – Our Selves.