A Community Where Everybody Belongs

Seeking Citizen

Seeking Citizen

Seeking Citizenship for the Historically Marginalized

 In this time of reckoning and reconciliation, we are coming to terms with how the historical mistreatment of groups of people has a lasting and profound effect on the treatment of people today. These people that have been marginalized or exploited only because they are different were, decidedly not worthy of full citizenship. The mainstream decided they had to be separated and to live devalued lives as “them” and certainly not “us”.

People from these diversity groups continue to struggle and are overrepresented in poverty, homelessness and in the justice systems. They are underrepresented in positions of influence, decision making or power. 

Along with this comes the suggestion that they have every opportunity to participate but simply choose not to. The social conservative thinking that everyone has equal opportunity for success and happiness and just need to work hard, is at least foolhardy if not fully intolerant. They mean; if you are not successful it is only out of laziness or unwillingness to be successful and happy or worse, that they are content to be marginalized with less than full citizenship and civic engagement.

As we try to reconcile the subjugation of groups of people, we often hear that the well documented historical mistreatment of your kind did not happen to you personally so why does it matter now? The mistreatment of people could only happen with a prevailing attitude that some people were just not worthy of full citizenship. That sort of thinking has an undeniable, powerful legacy today.

As long as people are blamed for floundering, being impoverished or alone, they will be blamed for their very existence.  Success and happiness are cornerstones of the human experience, so to suggest they are just not desired by marginalized people is dehumanizing. 

We are seeing families blamed for the existence of their adult family members with a developmental disability and it is their responsibility and burden to provide for them. If they want full citizenship for their loved one, it is up to them to provide it. We know that citizenship is not available in this sort of vacuum and devalues the social role of people with a developmental disability.

The relegation of the person into such devalued social roles has profound and lasting effects. 

Many people may have had some exposure to the nature of devalued social roles and their impact on people and how they are perceived and treated by others. Examples of such social roles would be that the person is seen predominantly as a danger to others i.e. a menace, a perpetual child or child-like, an object of pity, subhuman, habitual, burden etc. Though many people may associate such roles with prior eras in history, these roles are still very much a factor in our culture and still have real effects on people’s lives- Wolfensberger & Thomas, 2005

The historical and tragic treatment of people with developmental disabilities is well documented [Forbidden at neighbourhood schools, forced away from and refused any contact with their families, deprived of communities as children or adults, warehoused in institutions exempt from the health act, systematically sterilized against their will or without their knowledge, abused and neglected] yet they have little or no mention in conversations about equality and affirmative action.

We live in a democracy that by definition promotes and protects the interests of the majority. This is why we have and need a charter of individual rights and freedoms…to protect minorities. History shows us that understanding and exercising individual rights and freedoms has only happened with the help of those risking their benefits and privilege of the main stream.

The preamble to the Persons with Developmental Disabilities Act was supposed to serve a similar purpose when it was drafted as the first piece of legislation in Alberta with a preamble. It was to guide an evolving support system to ensure people with disabilities took their rightful place in society. 

Though people with developmental disabilities are represented in all minority and diversity groups they have little voice to protect them from policies and people that expect them to either compete for citizenship or languish in loneliness.

The system we created to repatriate people with developmental disabilities to the community was intended to create support for valued engagement and real citizenship -in a community that welcomes and includes them. The last part of this statement has in recent times been left to families, people with developmental disabilities and a few enlightened citizens…to build the capacity of community to welcome and include people with developmental disabilities.

Community building is a complex and formidable task that requires people with broad skills and talents not the least of which is the art of “hospitality”. That is; inviting people in to the life of a person with a disability and making sure they feel welcomed and important. Families have reported that making sure their loved one with a disability is included feels like wearing your heart on the outside of your body, leaving yourself vulnerable to the risk of being rejected yet with a deep hope of being accepted. For the most part people are surprised to hear they have a role in the life of a citizen with a disability but are interested in the possibilities.  

When families chose not to turn their loved one with a disability over to the system and rather take the primary role in creating authentic inclusion, they are questioned about their personal lives and private information as if they have some sort of subversive or hidden agenda despite having and sharing a sophisticated and comprehensive plan.

All they want is what any civil society wants for its most vulnerable citizens: The supports to have the same opportunities as citizens who are not affected by prejudice.  Supports that make fundamental changes in people’s lives, for the greater good of us all.

-Dave Lawson, Executive Director of Inclusion Lethbridge

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