Displacement and Disability
Around the corner from my apartment is Glenwood Day School, an amazing HWDSB institution that offers specialized supports for children with disabilities. It has a long history in my family: in the 1960s, my uncle was bussed in from the east end, every day, to attend its specialized programming.
My Uncle John loves cats, sugar-free chocolate bars, and his union. He worked every day of his life for as long as he was able, although he was never able to earn a living wage. He also has a developmental disability. He has lived in supportive housing in this city for his entire adult life, with few problems until this year.
This year, John’s diabetes worsened. At the time, my grandfather – his father – was dying slowly in the ICU. Our family has always helped John advocate, but this time we were caught between two people in the same family, both of whom desperately needed us to help them. It was exhausting and difficult, and he ended up having his leg amputated after gangrene set in and nearly killed him. He recovered nicely, and was briefly sent to a rehab centre downtown while he adjusted to his prosthetic.
Earlier this spring, we received a call from the occupational therapist. John, they said, was refusing to learn how to use his prosthetic properly, and they were going to kick him out. They also were refusing to let him return to his supportive housing unit, since he was still adjusting to the leg and using a wheelchair. The unit was physically inaccessible.
When they called, my mother asked how they had been teaching John to use his prosthesis. Anyone who has a disability, or who has a loved one with one, could predict what they said. He was obstinate, they said. He didn’t want to learn, they said.
We asked what accommodations they were making for his developmental disability. They said none. When we pointed out that they were violating John’s human rights, they said they were only obligated to provide accommodation for a documented developmental disability. Despite the fact that John lived in supportive housing for years that was only available to people with disabilities, and despite the fact that there is ample evidence in his medical file that he has a disability, they wanted a psychoeducational assessment from before John was 18.
John is in his mid 60s. They weren’t doing psychoeducational assessments for disabled kids in the early 1960s, or at least, not for working class disabled kids from the east end. His records were long gone. Finally, we were able to get his file from his union that had ‘proof’ of his disability. It took weeks.
Through all this bureaucratic back-and-forth, John was facing the prospect of homelessness. For a proud man, this was galling. For my family, it was an infuriating example of the uncaring eye of bureaucracy as it ‘serves’ the most vulnerable.
John was lucky. Having both raised disabled children, my mother and grandmother are fierce advocates against ableism and exclusion. Between the three of them, they got him the accommodations he needed to learn how to use his prosthetic, and he was eventually let back into his unit. He’s on the list for a fully accessible one, but for now at least he has a roof over his head.
When I am on the doorstep and hear tenants tell me the difficulties they have had getting accommodations made to their units, when they tell me that they are scared to speak out less they find themselves evicted, when I hear the frustration and fear in the voices of tenants preparing for their third, fourth, or tenth Landlord Tenant Board hearing, I see John. I know their pain because it is our pain, too.
What happens to people like John when they don’t have the ability to self-advocate?
Where would John have gone if they had kicked him out of rehab?
We see the answers to those questions on the street and in our shelter system.
Housing is a human right. That includes those with disabilities, too.