Tuesday, May 20, 2014

They are us

Last year I heard Dr. Paul Browde speak about how marginalized people are often reduced to one story, one stereotype, one dimension.

Browde is a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at the New York University. He's also HIV-positive. Decades ago, as a newly qualified psychiatrist on an AIDS hospital unit, he remained silent in a meeting when a doctor referred to patients as SHPOS: "subhuman pieces of shit."

It was a few years before he shared his diagnosis and his story, first at a presentation at the American Psychiatric Association, then with his colleagues, and, when helpful, with his patients.

Browde, speaking at an international conference on the use of storytelling in health care, said a good life is one that can be richly described, one about which many stories can be told.

But, there are people "whose lives are reduced to one story, or a few habitual ways of describing their lives," he said. "I saw this particularly in people with intellectual disabilities who are reduced to the story of a diagnosis or of being disabled."

We don't allow these folks to have many stories.

Case in point. Last Thursday, at a meeting to discuss neighbours' concerns about police and emergency calls to a new Etobicoke group home for teens with autism and learning and emotional problems, including depression and anxiety, Councillor Doug Ford said: "You've ruined the community." 

He asked Griffin Centre, the agency operating the home, to relocate the teens, saying "no one told me they'd be leaving the house." He also asked whether any of the youth were sex offenders (they're not). A neighbour said: "This is not a place for mental patients."

Bingo. That tired old story about kids who have autism, kids who have mental health issues, kids who have disabilities. Kids who are different, kids who Ford says aren't us.

As a medical student, Browde says he was trained to think of physicians as invulnerable. "Until my own diagnosis, I viewed illness as something that happened to others."

Dr. Browde said it was his narrative therapy training that led him to see the clinical value of understanding "what it means to be a patient...You could call this empathy. The ability to imagine being in the shoes of someone else."

Empathy. Yes, that's what was so lacking at Ford's meeting to discuss the group home.

Memo to Councillor Ford: Youth with autism are our brothers and sisters, our family members, our friends. People with depression and anxiety are us. I've had severe clinical depression. I have a son with disabilities. Why, you yourself have a brother with an addiction, which is a mental illness according to the American Psychiatric Association's diagnostic manual. 

We have a few group homes here in my neighbourhood of Riverdale, and our property values are rising, not falling.

Why didn't you go to that meeting and ask the Griffin Centre staff to share stories about the teens who live there? Not their clinical diagnoses, but who they are as people, what they enjoy in life, what their hopes are? 

Why didn't you organize a meeting where the staff could educate the homeowners about autism, mental health issues and developmental disability?

Why didn't you ask the neighbours to work with Griffin Centre and the youth to make the teens feel welcome and worthy rather than feared and despised? 

Why didn't you ask the neighbours to call the Griffin staff directly when they have a concern?

Why didn't you ask the neighbours to be patient as this new home goes through its growing pains, in the same way you expect the citizens of Toronto to have compassion for our mayor?

Why didn't you allow those teens to be more than a stereotype?


Comparing/contrasting Riverdale to Ford-Nation pretty much took away my hope that this latest embarrassment will be the end of these buffoons.

Louise, I have been at a loss for words to respond to this newest Ford fiasco. Thank you for speaking to this horrific issue in such an eloquent and measured way.

ps: every day, I get more and more OUTRAGED at how society devalues people with disabilities.

Autism is not a tragedy, ignorance is a tragedy.(This would include any disability.) I know of several group homes where I reside and the value of homes goes up not down.

Louise, as usual you have written about a serious issue with poise and grace, unlike the man at the centre of this fiasco. I would love to sit down and ask hi the questions you posed....however on second thought, it would probably be a waste of time. I think that like his brother, he is beyond reason and so full of ignorance, any valid facts presented would be lost on him. Human compassion should be a given but in this case, it appears to be overlooked.


I, and many other people with disabilities, live in a world that considers those with mental or physical challenges to be abnormal and subhuman. For, they can instantly see the effects of my cerebral palsy, but never the person from within. So, everyday I am faced with a choice: I can eithier hide at home, in complete isolation, or "I can make them see."
Education, as well as acceptance towards those disabilities, is a process. You, as Ben's mom, know this better than anyone. Invite Councillor Doug Ford to Holland Bloorview --make him see. You might just get what you want.

Transference is a gift.


This isn't a fair article. Did you hear what Doug Ford was talking about? He was talking about how they closed a massive family-centered care institution, and then chucked most everyone back into the community and the rest into a small group home. He's complaining that the home is understaffed and underfunded, that the staff doesn't monitor the people there, so the people living there are getting into trouble because they're not being supervised properly. That's what he said: having the bigger centre closed "ruined the community" - the community of supports.

That is the real travesty there - when "in the community" is translation for "we don't have to pay for it!". Which was the Ontario Liberal government, not Doug Ford.

Whatever Cassandra's viewpoint doesn't take away the value of the questions Louise poses to Doug Ford: Why didn't he? All I heard on the news was his complaints about disruptive behaviour, not understanding or compassion.