Saturday, January 01, 2011

By God, Finally A New Year

It should be a given. People with disabilities have a right to be safe in care. Organizations and the governments that fund them need to ensure that every effort is taken in order that those deemed 'vulnerable' are not victimized in places that are supposed to be sanctuaries. Yet, historically, we have failed miserably at keeping people safe in services. The statistics of the abuse of people with disabilities are staggering, even more concerning is the fact that the bulk of the abuse is done by those in care providing roles or by others in the immediate environment. Much hand wringing has been done about the issue with little change resulting.

That is no longer true in Ontario.

New legislation comes into effect today, January 1, 2011, which is nothing more and nothing less than a fully thought out strategy to reduce the likelihood of abuse, to increase the likelihood of conviction of abusers and to ultimately make the system safer. It is a commitment that, though long in coming, is stunning in its reach. People with disabilities, themselves, have spoken often and eloquently about the need to be safe in care, to have abusers punished, to be informed and educated in how to protect themselves. All these things have been taken into consideration in the legislation. While there is much to write about here, I'd like to focus on two separate changes that the legislation mandates.

All of this is written today right on the heels of an email from a mother of a fellow who was severely victimized in care. The pain her son experienced is mirrored by the pain experienced by the whole family. They had trusted. He had trusted. That trust was violated. Their experience, his experience, is far too common. There needs to be change. Change has come. This is cold comfort to all involved, but there is something in knowing that there is now a really serious and single minded effort in play, through legislation, that he never be hurt again. That he learn how to protect himself, that those around him will know what to do and when to do it.

The first change, the one that has caught most notice, is the change in how victimization will be reported. When a staff becomes aware of criminal abuse, through any means, that abuse must be reported to the police for investigation. In fact agencies are forbidden to investigate until the police have completed their enquiry. This will preserve evidence, will ensure timely investigation, will maintain the credibility of a witness statement. This is, and this is important, the ONLY form of abuse reporting that is an abuse preventor. Reporting that goes in for internal scrutiny before it goes out for external investigation allows the abuser, who I believe understands the law better than most, to rest comfortable. They know full well that inevitably internal investigations confound police investigations. All abusers now know that their actions will be seen as 'crimes' and that their behaviour will be investigated by people with badges. It means that for the first time the purposeful hurt of people with disabilities will be treated as seriously in fact - as they are in law. They are criminal acts that need to be dealt with by professional investigators.

After doing a training for police officers on how to interview a witness with a disability, I am chatting with a detective. She is frustrated. She thought the training a waste of time. Every time she'd gone in to deal with a report of abuse within an agency, there was nothing she could do. Victims had been interviewed several times by staff and by supervisors, their testimony was destroyed by leading questions and questionable agendas. The system needed to change before the police could do anything. Well, the system will now be doing what police have wanted, they will now be able to do their job because we properly will do ours.

The second change, to me is more dramatic, the legislation now requires that people with disabilities receive abuse prevention education. I will pause now for the world to cry out, 'hallelujah'. Traditionally people with disabilities have been seen as those who need protection, not those who can protect themselves. This has led to others, more powerful others, taking on the role of protector. This legislation requires us all to see people with disabilities, all people with disabilities as having a role in protecting themselves. We must acknowledge that they need information and strategies, that they need vocabulary and assertion, that they need voice and power. Ultimately, I believe, it will be this part of the legislation that will change how service is offered more than any other legislation. The requirement of education to people with disabilities is astonishing. It means that the gap in power, the very gap in power that creates abusive situations, will be reduced. Every staff will now have to respect those in their care a little more, be a little more careful, be a little more respectful. It's an awesome change, though there will be nay-sayers who think that training people with disabilities to protect themselves is a waste of time. But I know. I really know. This matters. I have been doing abuse prevention training and training trainers personally in the art for over 20 years. Vita Community Living Services has been doing abuse prevention for every members of the organization, yearly, for four years. Our trainers have trained trainers for at least three of those years. I've seen it work. We've seen it work. We've experienced first hand the power that comes with education. I've watched people grow as they learn.

I'm on a plane. Sitting comfortably in my seat just like I'm supposed to do. A woman with a disability is coming down the aisle. She is carrying a small bag over her back and looking carefully for her seat. Suddenly she notices me. She drops her bag, puts her hand out, palm up, and shouts, 'NO!' at the top of her lungs. The whole plane freezes, and this is before 9/11. Then she bursts into a grin and says, 'You taught me how to say that, do you remember?' After I got over my shock I grinned back and said, 'You bet I do.' Training works. I know it does.

For four years Vita Community Living Services has been working on these very issues. That work is reflected in this legislation. Some of what I've written over time has made it into the legislation. It feels good to be part of a larger agency within an even larger movement that has led to radical change. We, every single person and every single agency and every single person with a disability who has spoken up over the years regarding the issue of abuse, needs to feel good about what has happened here.

I think of people.

Like Lisette who had the courage to speak about about her victimization and to take action to make change.

Like Jim who brought his experience of victimization to the discussion of the abuse of men within services.

I think of people.

Like Ryan who speaks powerfully about the need for people with disabilities to know about their rights.

Like Sandra who only ever wanted to be safe and when that wasn't her experience began to work so others would be.

I think of people.

Like Manuela who had the courage to determine to target abuse within an organization, to determine strategies to keep all safe and then advocate for change.

Like Nancy who brought people together to create training materials done by people with disabilities for people with disabilities on rights and on abuse prevention.

I think of people

Like me, who knew hurt as a child and grew into someone who never lost sight of the horror of helplessness and wanted to do something about it.

Like you, who want the world to be safe for all, especially those in your care.

I think of people.

Like those who have bravely crafted this legislation, fully aware that major systems change will result.

Like every person with a disability in Ontario who will now wake to a new morning in a new year. Things are going to change.


Finally, finally, A New Year.


theknapper said...


Kristin said...

What a wonderful way to start the New Year!

Maggie said...

What a delightful accomplishment! Congratulations to all who contributed to bringing this legislation to completion!

Anonymous said...

What an amazing way to start the new year!!! I can't wait to see what wonderful things are yet to come!


Brenda said...

I'm so glad that yours was the first blog post that I read in this brand new shiny year. Your writing shared current changes, and bright hopes for the future. What better way to begin a new year! And what a remarkable journey for all of those involved in bringing about this legislation. While it's true that there is always more to do, this is a huge step forward - you should all feel extremely proud!

A belated Happy Birthday, Dave, and Happy New Year to you and Joe!

the big woman in the yellow sweater said...

The company I work for in Ontario is furious about this legislation. My supervisor says that it's because it doesn't make sense because the police won't do anyting and because disabled people lie to get attention. The real reason is because they have been covering up abuse for years. They are afraid now that everyone will know what's been going on. One woman who was found beating a man with a wooden spoon was given a talking to and then was made a supervisor. All of us who wanted to do things like call the police were told that wed be fired. I really lov e my job and I need the workk. When I went to the training I could see how stressed everybody is. I herd that this came from Vita and I want you to know that some of the management people hate you guys a lot. But a lot of us who do the actul work are really happy that peopel we care about are safer. I'd like to sign my name but I'd be fired. I met you once at a conference. You did something really kind for me. I'll never for get you. One day if I meet you again I'm going to thank you personality. I go back to work on Sunday and your right it is a really new year.

Anonymous said...

The wheeliecrone says -

Hallelujah, indeed!!
Well done, Ontario!
Well done, Vita!
Well done, you, Dave!
Well done to everyone who worked to make this legislation happen!

Now, let's hope that this spreads throughout the world. Quickly.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,
This is indeed a wonderful accomplishment - and I wonder how many police will get adequate training. I also wonder who will fund the training for individuals who live with disabilities. It's hard enough coming up with enough training money to make sure that all the staff have current CPR . . .
Having said that - the legislation is in place . . . and hopefully the agencies will be held accountable for supporting it! I read the comment from the woman in the yellow sweater and recognize that it could have been written by most staff in most agencies. There's a lot of work to do - thankfully we have a new year in which to do it!
Susan Goharriz

Dave Hingsburger said...


At Vita we have shown that the cost of training people with disabilities is virtually nothing ... beyond training trainers to do the training. We have to remember that part of the job of agencies is to provide education and training to people with disabilities! So this means we simply need to focus on what training needs to be done. As to the police, we have found that, for the most part, police have done just fine with their investigations because they are coming in first and coming in clean. However, you are right, there may need to be training. But with agencies not reporting, or reclassifying crimes as 'inappropriate behaviours' there haven't been enough reports to make training a priority. I've spoken to many officers over the years who have never had a case of abuse reported to them. The legislation is the beginning of change, not the change itself, I recognize that, and that is what I am personally celebrating.

Dave Hingsburger said...

to the woman in the yellow sweater, if I could, I'd like to give you a great big ((hug)) right now. Thank you for your courage and your honesty. It's because of people like you that this change will have meaning.

Nancy Wallace-Gero said...


What a wonderful account of a geat reason for THIS NEW YEAR season! Agreed some are not celebrating as they should...but, a new day is upon us in Ontario...and as we go forward the understanding will grow. I would like to thank Dave and Joe....for their outstanding leadership over the past 25 years...for making it all possible... such a powerful change for everyone in Ontario!

Amy said...

Happy, happy New Year, Dave and Joe! This post was exactly what I needed to start my new year off right.

Anonymous said...


I was at a meeting a few years ago with Manuella when I heard you had started work at Vita and were going to be working on abuse issues. I thought then, wow this is going to be a powerful partnership. I've always admired Manuella as she has hsitorically spoken up and even risked stating an unpopular position. I've always admired you because of your willingness to turn thought and ideas into action. I knew great things would come of your partnership. I can't be open here with my name because like the comment from the person in the yellow sweater, the people I work with aren't really happy with the reporting requirements and many of my coworkers read your blog. So to both you and Manuella, thanks for your courage and for the difference you are making.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Wonderful for people, and wonderfully said. Delurking with a fervent hallelujah.

flit said...

Sad... but my first thought at the idea of having more police entering group homes was to worry about more incidents of tasering... unnecessary physical interventions... criminalization of people....

Perhaps I am just too cynical?

I so hope that this legislation works ... but... *sigh*

Belinda said...

Anything that contributes to a safer world for people who have been consistently victimized is worthy of celebration. Thank you for your hard work; for going against the easy flow; for having courage and inspiring courage in others. Kudos to VITA too!

Anonymous said...

flit, after reading this positive post and getting excited about the changes being made I was upset to read your comment. I think that the statistics of abuse are that 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men are victimized in care. So you'd rather the status quo, preferring the very great likelihood that someone will be victimized to the .00000001 percent likelihood that a tazer will be used on them. There are so many who prefer keeping on doing what doesn't work because they are afraid of doing something that might work. I wonder really about their agenda, why are they afraid of police investigation?

Tamarra in SO

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

All the best to you and Joe for 2011!

Indeed Hallejuah!!! Recognizing people with disabilities as proactive in their own safety is a giant step forward. Recognizing and preserving their credibility is going to make it harder for predators to get away with abuse. In the words of a very courageous friend who took her abuser to court, "I want him to know that I wasn't just some dumb deaf kid." He was convicted. Hallejuah!


Andrea S. said...

To Anonymous/Tamarra in SO:

I did not read flit as opposing the legislation. I think that flit had in mind multiple incidents covered in the news where police enter situations involving people with disabilities only to escalate events to the point where they DO needlessly taser, restrain, or harm people with disabilities usually due to a poor understanding of the person’s disability and how to interact with them constructively.

As a deaf person who has never violated the law, I am tense when I need to deal with police because, even though some cops are perfectly fine and are great people trying to do a difficult job well (my brother in law is a cop!), there are still many other cops who don't really understand what deafness means and how they need to accommodate our communication needs, whether as victims, witnesses, or suspects. This despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in the US in 1990, which has given them 20 years to learn! A few members of the Deaf community have been beaten up in part due to poor understanding of deafness among cops. I don't want this to happen to me but still worry something bad could eventually happen.

Tamarra, I am glad that Ontario has passed this law and I hope that in the long run it will do a lot of good. I think there are enough good officers that this law will help catch some abuse some of the time. But like flit, I worry. I know that in addition to the good cops, there are ALSO many cops who are good people but very ignorant of disability issues. And in addition to these, there is a certain minority, unfortunately larger than it should be, who got into this profession because it gives them an excuse to go on a power trip and abuse their authority.

I worry that cops in Ontario now have a big learning curve ahead of them. If they go in and find that the alleged victim cannot speak, will they just ignore the victim and listen to the people denying anything happened and go away? Or will they learn how the alleged victim DOES communicate (writing? typing? communication board? sign language via sign interpreter? gestures? drawn pictures?) and take the time to really LISTEN to what they say no matter how they say it or how long it takes?

Or, if an autistic person becomes overwhelmed with too much stimulation (sounds, fluorescent lights, etc.) and has a melt down in front of them, will they mistake this for a tantrum or a violent outburst? People unfamiliar with autism frequently do. When they're cops, they have sometimes/often responded with repressive force.

I worry about what will happen to people with disabilities experiencing abuse while they're waiting for cops to learn enough about their disabilities to handle their case appropriately. To listen to them. To not attack them or taser them or restrain them unnecessarily for behaving in ways the cops don't understand or that they might misinterpret.

I think if you honestly believe that the risks of tasering is as low as .00001 percent then you have not seen or heard some of the stories I've seen about things cops have done to people with disabilities, not necessarily because the cops are mean (though some are) but because they don't understand.

I don't think it is fair to attack flit or other people who express these concerns. Although I feel the new Ontario law sounds like overall a very good step in the right direction, I do also feel that it needs to be accompanied by intensified disability awareness training for cops. Because I don't think these worries are as overblown as you think. Instead of dismissing flit’s concerns, or accusing him/her of the wrong “agenda”, how about taking the time to learn more about why many of us worry about how cops treat us people with disabilities?

Anonymous said...


I know it might be hard for an American to realize that policies and procedures in other countries might be different. But I did do research. I found not one case in Ontario where a police office tasered a person with an intellectual disability. (I restricted my search terms so do not know of its history with other minorities.) In fact the taser is restricted in Ontario, a quick search of Ontario government websites reveals this: In Ontario, the use of Tasers is restricted to tactical/hostage rescue units, preliminary perimeter control and containment teams, and frontline supervisors . Remember this new law requires police to investigate a crime and when I've been interviewed by the police as a disabled woman here in Southern Ontario I felt no fear of violence and never even saw weapons. Please do not assume that I don't do research, or do not have an informed opinon or am not a disabled person.

T in SO

Dave Hingsburger said...

Thanks for all the discussion, it's more than I expected with with it being a holiday. I wonder though if we are talking now about hypothetical abuse of potential police officers in a future which has not happened rather than real abuse by real abusers in real time. Our experience with the police here at Vita over the last four years has been heartening. I've done training with police officers a number of times in Ontario, long before this legislations, and have found them to actually see the need for the training and have a desire to learn how to communicate well. The statistics in the present tense are concerning, lets focus on those as the tragedy not on non-existant statistics from abuses that have not yet but maybe in the future might. I'm sure that those who worked to make changes would respond quickly and harshly should a police officer misuse their power during an investigation. But let's see!

Lene Andersen said...

The news about the legislation is such a great way to start the year! Good for you, good for Vita and damn, good for all the people who'll be more protected now.

it doesn't take much digging to find out the horrific rates of abuse among people with disabilities, primarily committed by their - our - caregivers. That's theory, in reality, it gets grittier than that. Abuse is anything from trying to control a person's life - by individual staff or in a systemic way - to actual physical harm. I've been on the receiving end of both. We need all the help we can get to fight back.

Manuela said...

As Dave said, we have been doing this for four years at Vita and not once have police come in and been intrusive with someone who has reported abuse. Regardless of how disabled they are, whether they can speak or not, our experience is they take the report seriously and investigate. We did not train them. People seem to think difficulty in communication will prevent police from investigating. Even if the victim cannot speak or tell the officers what happened that does not prevent an investigation. Think about it, if it did a murder would never be investigated by police! Have we ever had police restrain someone? Yes, when we have called for assistance when they were violent and we couldnt control. That is a totally different situation. Have we had police come in that are uncomfortable, unsure, yes. That has been rare however and again not prevented an investigation. Have we ever had a member while police are present become agitated because of fear of perhaps their uniform or that they were in trouble? Yes. Police were quick to accept our direction, leave and return in plain clothes. How is that for understanding and support! Will this be a shock and learning curve for police - getting calls from agencies to investigate abuse? Yes. The unfortunate reality is they haven't been called. Will police want or ask for more training, yes once they start getting calls. Will mistakes happen? Will a police officer with a lousy attitude respond to a call. Yes. The reality is if we can hire staff that are abusers, the police can hire officers that have a negative attitude. These are the exceptions. But it will cost money to train individuals with disabilities in abuse prevention. Are we not funded to support persons with disabilities? What is the difference between 2 hours of teaching someone how to make a sandwich, budget, take the bus, make their bed (I could go on) and 2 hours of talking to them about abuse and what to do. Lets not dwell on the what ifs. One thing I learned long ago is if we spend all our time trying to address the minor what ifs we will never move forward. It is time things changed. It is time we stop coming up with reasons why crime against persons with disabilities shouldn't be reported. Its time abuse was stopped. Its time we listened to those we support. Its time we get over our fears. Its time.

Myrrien said...

Oh dear, teary eyed again. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. In the hope that other legislators take notice.

Mark Pathak said...

Sadly it remains true that most people learn more from making mistakes than doing things correctly. Criminal Justice agencies can change and learn new skills, they just have to feel safe enough in the environment to hold their hands up and admit it, learn and then move on.

Things can change, but change we must.

I'm off to research the new leglislation, anyone know what its called?