21 November 2008

Valley View Centre

I began today feeling like I was back in kindergarten because we were going on a field trip. I'd mocked the trip, and tried to think up a dozen ways to get out if it so I wouldn't have to waste my Friday. But in the end, I could come up with no compelling excuse not to go, so like a good little student I showed up at 7:30 this morning to embark on a trip to Moose Jaw. And I'm glad I did.

While I could say a lot about my Law and Disability class (and I have) it has been a really good class to get me thinking and considering ideas and viewpoints I've never considered before, especially around the area of disability. It, more than any other class I've taken at law school has made me re-evaluate how I view others, and to broaden my understanding of being "pro-life." Our field trip today was to the Valley View Center in Moose Jaw, SK. The VVC is one of the few remaining institutional care homes left in Canada for persons with cognitive disabilities. See the Saskatchewan Government Fact Sheet here.

As we approached the facility, I had no idea what to expect; my prof hadn't told us much about the facility, except to mention that there was controversy over its very existence. Some organizations want nothing more than to see it shut down because they view any form of institutional living as a violation of human rights. The Friends of Valley View want to keep it open, and the reason my prof gave was because it is home to the residents who live there, and moving somewhere else would be traumatizing to them.

We were told at the very start of the visit that the VVC allows very few visitors in because it is the home of the residents, and just as you and I wouldn't want a bunch of strangers to suddenly walk into our home, they wouldn't want it either. That really hit home to me. They broke us up into groups of two or three to see the facility, and I was amazed by it. As the staff member who showed me around pointed out, the VVC is its own little community with every service you could imagine available on site for the benefits of the residents; a doctor's office, dentist, even a barber shop/beauty salon.

What stood out to me as we saw VVC was, first, just how big the place was. Currently there are just under 250 residents, but at its peak the VVC was home to over 1400 people. However, all the residents I met seemed very happy and very content. The people who work at the VVC are very friendly, and obviously care a lot for the residents. As we walked around, we were told of the huge culture shift the VVC has undergone, even in the last few decades. The current model and vision statement is "living life to the fullest," and based on what I saw, the VVC is doing a wonderful job of that. They are trying to make the place a home, not an institution, despite the solid concrete walls everywhere. The homes have been personalized with photos and drawings, and they are currently preparing for Christmas by decorating. It seemed like every second verbal resident I met was asking about when the Christmas Party was- it seems to be the event on the social calendar that everyone is looking forward to.

Leaving the VVC, I don't have a problem with the institution being open. The people who live there are cared for and loved, and the people who work there genuinely seem to enjoy their jobs. And I can certainly see the argument of the Friends of Valley View that it is a home for people, and it's not right to take that from them. But I also understand the other side; our culture has shifted, and we no longer believe that institutionalizing people is the best way to do things. Living in the community is better for all involved. My prof called the current situation a "d├ętente"- neither side is really talking about the other side, and the idea at present seems to be let everyone who lives there be, but no new residents will be accepted. That means in a few decades the centre will close, simply because there are no more residents left.

I found myself thinking about the centre, and people with intellectual disabilities specifically on the ride home. While there is definitely an economic argument to made for institutional living, an economic argument can also be made for group home living as well. But economics isn't everything, and I think that as the culture of death continues to pervade this world, we need to have people with disabilities living and working in the greater community just so we can all learn that they are people as well, people who deserve the full protection of human rights. When we talk about assisted suicide and euthanasia, and also the termination of unborn children with "defects" we are talking about discrimination on the basis of disability. The more that people interact with people with disabilities of all types, the better equipped we will all be to be citizens. People with disabilities are no more different from "normal" people than black people are from white people, or women are from men. Yes, there are differences in our abilities, but we all have something to offer to the world, and we should all be allowed to offer it to the world. No one should be hidden away because they are "different," but at the same time, we have to make accommodations for the differences to enable everyone to live the fullest life they can. Funny, that's also the VVC's vision statement. In a perfect world, the residents of the VVC wouldn't have to live there to get the love and care they do; it's something we would all provide in the greater society as a whole.

Too bad the whole culture of death and viewing people as burdens gets in the way.

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