Building inclusion

SACL working to improve quality of life for those with intellectual disabilities

Growing up, Graham Dickson knew something wasn’t quite right about the North Park Centre. He visited on occasion to see his Uncle Murray, who was put in care and lived there.

North Park Centre was at the site of the former sanatorium. Back then, it was used to treat patients suffering from tuberculosis, but in the North Park Centre days, it was a site established to institutionalize those with intellectual disabilities.

“It never sat right,” Dickson said. “I was very frightened. There were people there who looked different than people I’d seen before … (living in) what I imagined a prison looked like.”

Over time, Dickson learned the people at North Park just wanted intimacy – someone to shake their hand or give them a hug.

Eventually, North Park was closed, and the people moved out. Murray was one of those who transitioned into living in the community. But he was institutionalized. He lived out of a suitcase, thinking he would be moved again. According to Dickson, he only kept two things on his bedside table – a harmonica and his teeth.

Now, Dickson works as a director of community engagement with one of the organizations that worked so hard to end the practice of institutionalizing individuals with intellectual disabilities in Saskatchewan, the Saskatchewan Association of Community Living (SACL).

“Growing up, I think I took for granted how that experience shaped me,” said Dickson, who is originally from Prince Albert but now lives in Saskatoon.

“As I grew older, I would actually see some of the individuals that I met in North Park Centre out in the community, and I thought that was fantastic. They were working, they were happy; they were part of the community. When I started working with SACL, I really gained appreciation for just what an impact that would have on people’s lives.”

North Park closed in 1988. The building is long since demolished. Much has changed in Saskatchewan since then, but so much still needs to be done.

“Folks that have intellectual disabilities are lonely. A large majority of people in their lives are paid employees,” Dickson said.

“They don’t have a lot of opportunity to create organic relationships with people. I’m really proud of the work we’re doing at SACL for that reason, because we’re paving the way for individuals to have real relationships to live in the community to have autonomy, and to have support and value and dignity in their lives.”

SACL hosted their second Prince Albert inclusion tour over lunch hour Thursday. The event lets families, community partners and other interested people learn about the services the organization offers and the challenges they face. About a dozen people turned out for the second inclusion tour.

“We’re extremely proud of the work we’ve done to make sure people don’t live out of a suitcase,” said Connie Andersen. She’s the director of community development, and she took a few minutes Thursday to talk about how far SACL has come, and how far it still has to go.

SACL was founded over 60 years ago by Dr. John Dolan. At the time, people who had an IQ of less than 70 were not permitted to go to school. Dolan’s daughter was one of those students. He put an ad in the StarPhoenix to find out how many children were unable to go to school because they had an intellectual disability. The response inspired him, and he started the association to give a voice to those in the province with an intellectual disability.

Now, SACL provides crisis support, public education, advocacy work with the government and direct housing and employment support for individuals with intellectual disabilities, as well as self-advocacy, self-directed funding and social activities.

According to Andersen, SACL teamed up with over 40 partnership organizations to pressure the government into establishing SAID, the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability. Prior to SAID, people with a disability received $850 per month. Now, they receive $1,300 per month.

That’s still below what someone on minimum wage makes, she said, which is about $1,700 per month.

While the organization is still working with the provincial government to close the gap, it’s also working on securing housing and employment opportunities for intellectually disabled individuals. Andersen said 25 per cent of people SACL supports live in inadequate positions. Some couch surf or live in shelters. While at least 75 per cent of people with an intellectual disability are unemployed nationwide, despite having an ability and desire to work.

Andersen focused on income, housing and employment for a key reason.

“Those are the basics of life,” she said.

In Saskatchewan, about 18,000 people have an intellectual disability. About 5,000 people, whether with a physical or intellectual disability, access SAID, while a further 2,000 intellectually disabled individuals are supported by SACL.

That leaves about 11,000 people without support.

“They may not know they can reach out,” Andersen said.

Geography also poses a challenge.

Dickson knows that challenge well. SACL has three offices, one each in Prince Albert, Regina and Saskatoon. While they also have branches across the southern half of the province, as well as in Biggar and Lloydminster, the P.A. office is responsible for an area stretching from the east border to the west, and covering the entire province north of the city. As the director of community engagement, he works to pair with partners and improve access to services in the north.

“There’s about 35,000 people living in the northern half of the province, and they live in about 60 communities. A lot of the roads are hard to travel, and because of the distance it’s really cost prohibitive to get up there,” he said.

“On top of that is the technology. The first cell tower was only put up in Black lake (in 2015).”

Those barriers are improving. But there are two other barriers that still pose a problem for SACL staff. One is the legacy of residential schools.

“Generally, when were talking about housing for individuals with disabilities, we refer to it as residential placements. If you go up north and use that kind of language, it has a different meaning to someone who is Indigenous,” Dickson said.

That’s one example of how we need to be culturally sensitive and appropriate in the way we roll out these supports.”

The other issue is one of jurisdiction. Anyone who lives on a First Nation is looked after by the federal government, whereas most of SACL’s work is with the provincial Ministry of Social Services. Most of the frontline workers are also provincially funded, making it harder to navigate the systems through the duelling bureaucracies.

“It’s two sets of policies and two different bureaucratic systems we have to work with which complicate it.”

For more on this story, please se the February 23 print edition of the Daily Herald.