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.