Lifestyles

The retarded and their friends are slowly eroding the ignorance barrier

JULIANNE LABRECHE February 7 1977
Lifestyles

The retarded and their friends are slowly eroding the ignorance barrier

JULIANNE LABRECHE February 7 1977

The retarded and their friends are slowly eroding the ignorance barrier

Lifestyles

When Maurice and Mary Charbonneau first moved into their home in the Ottawa suburb of Evergreen Heights, the community hastily circulated a petition trying to keep them out. The reason: the Charbonneaus were asking 14 mentally retarded men and women to come and live with them. Ultimately the opposion was overcome and the Charbonneaus and the mentally retarded stayed. Today, four years later, the mentally retarded wait with their neighbors in chilly early morning temperatures to catch bus 62, which takes them to their nine-to-five jobs. No longer outcasts, they’ve joined the rush of urban dwellers and blended into the milieu of suburban living. Says neighbor Rita Morin: “Let me tell you they’ve come a long way, baby, since they first moved in. They’re treated the same as any other family. I think that’s the highest tribute we could give them.”

The Charbonneau home—better

known as Alleluia House—is one of about 65 founded by Jean Vanier, son of Canada’s late Governor General, Georges Vanier, and patterned after L’Arche (The Ark), a community of mentally retarded and non-handicapped adults living together in a village about 60 miles northeast of Paris, France. L’Arche began in 1964, in the tiny village of Trosly-Breuil, when Vanier set up housekeeping activities with two mentally handicapped men. Then, as now, his premise was “Unlock the doors, remove the bars, and give the people some work.” Twelve years later his homes have spread to India, England, Scotland, Belgium, Denmark, Canada (with 11) and the United States.

Life in Alleluia House is essentially simple for the 14 mentally retarded, whose ages range from 18 to 37. They work as dishwashers, janitors, housekeepers, mail sorters or gardeners, returning home in the evening to the companionship of friends. Yet simplicity breeds self-reliance, and therein lies the essence of L’Arche’s success. Says Vanier: “I have seen the deep sadness of mentally deficient men and women, when they are closed up in asylums or psychiatric hospitals, just as I have known their possibility for violence if they are not treated as human beings. But when those whom society calls ‘feebleminded,’ or even worse, ‘idiots,’ feel they are appreciated. a very harmonious life flows forth, with much confidence and love.”

Vanier’s approach encompasses a theory developed by Bengt Nirje, now director of training with Ontario’s Mental Retardation Community Services and De-

velopment Branch. Nirje, an international authority in his field, speaks of the principle of “normalization”—letting the mentally retarded pattern their lives around the rhythms of everyday existence. “It is not a question of making the mentally retarded normal, but of making their environment and lifestyles as normal as possible,” he says. The difficulty lies with public acceptance.

In fact, Canada’s mentally retarded are just beginning to be entrusted with human rights taken for granted by most people. Although some 80% of the mentally retarded are defined as “mildly” retarded (comprising about 2% of the population) and capable of living near-autonomous lives, many still aren’t allowed to marry, vote, immigrate, or make use of public education. Canada’s federal immigration law refers to mental retards as “imbeciles, morons and idiots” and refuses them immigration visas. They must obtain special permits to come to Canada even on a holiday. Until now, special one-year passes have been available for the mentally retarded wishing to reside in this country, but the red tape and legal fees pose considerable obstacles.

In most provinces, education for the mentally retarded is not compulsory, and many children are excluded from the normal public school system and channeled into “special” classes. In Ontario, boards of education need only provide instruction to the “trainable mentally retarded.” Thus in the Ottawa-Carleton school system. 18year-old Anthony Clarence Smith has received inconsistent education for the past 12 years, because the schools could not

teach him in his native language—French. In Alberta and Ontario, mentally retarded people are not allowed to marry. Furthermore, a section of the Criminal Code provides a five-year prison term for males who have sexual intercourse with a woman who is mentally retarded. Meant to protect her, the law often means that she is putting her boyfriend or husband in a risky legal position. Says Noel Kinsella, chairman of the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission: “One of every four marriages [between non-retarded Canadians] ends in divorce and an unknown number of the rest generate misery, murder, mayhem, mental breakdown and child abuse. On what basis, then, can retarded persons be told they cannot marry?”

In the end, the mentally retarded are up against walls far stronger than the walls of any institution. When discriminated against, they have few avenues of redress. Provincial human rights commissions cannot handle these cases, since they don’t fall within the category of “color, race, ‘sex or creed! ” Provincial ombudsmen can act on their behalf only in cases involving complaints against the government.

Changes, however, are in sight. Included in Ottawa’s current legislative package is a new immigration law, a federal human rights commission and new social services legislation that will provide counseling, work programs and rehabilitation services for the mentally retarded. Says Health Minister Marc Lalonde: “What we must communicate to the public is that there is nothing wrong with the mentally retarded. What is wrong is our retarded attitudes about them.” JULIANNE LABRECHE