I spent the Victoria Day long weekend alternating between being angry about Doug Ford’s bigoted and hateful statements regarding the Griffin Centre and being heartened by the response I was seeing to those statements. On Monday I tweeted this:
— Deanne Shoyer (@OMum22) May 20, 2014
Last night I received one tweet in response which galvanized me to write this post. I can’t link to it as it’s been deleted but the content was:
@ejb__: U sound like v bitter Mother.Take better care dressing up Ur Kids so they be more appealing &don’t make them Ppls problem
I know this particular person is a troll but Doug Ford and the media who uncritically amplify his message are the ones that feed these people. The ableist stigma and lies that have been spouted about children like mine that have a developmental disability have an impact – and it’s not a positive one.
For those of you not familiar with the landscape of Toronto politics, Doug Ford is the elder brother of our current “crack-smoking mayor”, Rob Ford. Doug is also a city councillor, representing Ward 2 Etobicoke North, which was Rob Ford’s seat before he became Mayor. The boys and I currently live in Etobicoke, although thankfully not in Mr. Ford’s ward, so the issue that arose over the weekend felt uncomfortably close to home.
The Griffin Centre, which operates several facilities in different areas of Toronto, opened a home in Doug Ford’s ward two months ago. This home:
is equipped for five youth, between the ages of 12 and 18, with “mild to moderate developmental disabilities and mental health challenges.”
currently houses three, all of whom attend school in the area… Staff at the home include two overnight members. Source
Some of these kids are autistic. Area residents have expressed some concerns about the home. Having concerns is understandable – the home has only been in operation for two months. However, rather than recognize that he’s just as much a councillor for the teens living in this home as he is for all the other residents in the area, Mr. Ford decided to kick start a movement to run these “undesirables” out of the neighbourhood. A responsible politician would have sought to bring both sides together, would have facilitated dialogue and resolution. Doug Ford, like his brother, is not a responsible politician. He instead decided to light some torches and hand out pitchforks at a meeting between centre staff and area locals. Here are some quotes from that meeting:
Resident: “This is not a place for mental people. This is a residential area. Why don’t you build a house out on a farm?”
Resident: “The solution is for them to move out. Locate the facility in another place. This is a community for people, not for that.”
Doug Ford: “We can’t have fire trucks and police cars and EMS there all the time and eight cars parked on the street. You’ve ruined the community”
Doug Ford “You can’t destroy a community like this. People have worked 30 years for their home…My heart goes out to kids with autism. But no one told me they’d be leaving the house. If it comes down to it, I’ll buy the house myself and resell it.”
Doug Ford’s statements drew considerable criticism but, in classic Ford style, Doug has chosen to make the situation worse rather than better and in this he’s had help from the media.
Joe Warmington, a pro-Ford columnist, wrote an egregious piece about what he termed “Autismgate”, in which he said:
Is the planned shutting down of properly-equipped institutions like Thistletown in favour of a regular home always the right approach?
Improve the operation or assess if it is the best place for such a program. It could very well be decided this place would be better suited to the streets where Chow, Tory or Rae live.
In a more balanced Sun article, Doug Ford claims:
the youth housed in the residence “are not autistic kids.” He said they have “criminal backgrounds” and “violent tendencies.” Ford alleged youth have left the home unsupervised. He also alluded to car break-ins and youth wandering at night in the neighbourhood.
All of which the Griffin Centre countered in an e-mailed statement, from Catia Valenti Mishaiel, who said they have:
“no reports of these incidences occurring from staff, neighbours or police” and that youth do not leave the home at night.
The Globe and Mail also checked back in with Mr. Ford and local area residents. Mr Ford said:
“I don’t know how many middle-class communities, or any communities, want that bang-centre in the middle of their community,” the councillor said in a phone interview Sunday. “It’s not the fault of the youth that’s in there, it’s the system’s fault. We need to find a proper location that they have the freedom to do what they do and the help that they need.”
Then just yesterday, Doug Ford was “interviewed” (i.e. given a platform to express himself freely without being challenged) by CP24. He reiterated more of the same stigmatizing conjecture and inaccuracies and this time added a new one:
“The neighbourhood is up in arms,” Ford said.
“I have a two and a half page rap sheet from the police.”
Which means either he’s lying or he has illegally obtained police information on a minor. It would be great if someone sought confirmation of that, one way or the other.
Why is this stigmatizing?
These three minors, children remember, deserve their privacy. We don’t have details of either their diagnoses or their challenges and that’s exactly how it should be. It’s highly inappropriate for Doug Ford to allege that these kids are violent criminals when there’s ZERO evidence of that. It simply feeds into a hugely bigoted, ableist and false notion about neurodivergent people – that we’re prone to violence – when the statistics clearly show that we’re more likely to be victims of violence. The reaction of Doug Ford and area residents to these neurodivergent children is, sadly, typical. One study has showed:
negative public responses [to children with mental illness] include preference for social distance from the child/family, the distancing of the child from other children, blaming the child’s family for the child’s problems, and preference for severe treatment modalities for the child including treatment in restrictive settings. Source.
There have been some great articles about group homes that have popped up this weekend. Please give them a read – Doug Ford is Wrong. Group Homes Thrive in Neighbourhoods and Doug Ford’s group home fears unfounded, neighbours of a similar facility say.
As advocates for inclusion and community living understand, the “proper facility” for neurodivergent people is with other people, not isolated in institutions. One of our candidates for the mayoral election in October is John Tory. I don’t always agree with his policies or politics but he issued a statement on the weekend that was heartening and very welcome:
For years, it was thought the best way to help people with disabilities, including those with autism, was to place them in large institutions – a kind of confinement away from the community. Today, we know what is best for us and best for them is to include them in every possible way – at school and in our community. For Doug Ford to express surprise that kids with autism would “be leaving the house” is incredibly out of touch and insensitive.
What’s the impact of this stigma?
Profoundly detrimental. When neurodivergent people are isolated from the general public, the public makes assumptions about them based on stereotypes which lead to individuals that need support becoming instead more isolated and discriminated against. A 2003 study found:
Stigma leads others to avoid living, socializing, or working with, renting to, or employing people with mental disorders – especially severe disorders, such as schizophrenia. It leads to low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness. It deters the public from seeking and wanting to pay for care. Responding to stigma, people with mental health problems internalize public attitudes and become so embarrassed or ashamed that they often conceal symptoms and fail to seek treatment. Source.
Peer modelling has not only shown great outcomes for both autistic children and their typically developing peers (example) but it’s especially important given that without acceptance of difference, autistic kids like mine are more likely to be bullied and victimized.
A recent murder-suicide in Prince George B.C. caused many of us parents of autistic children to say, yet again, that murder of our kids is not an option that should be “understood”. Shannon Rosa and countless others issued reminders that a parent at the end of their tether can always walk away. It may have dire consequences but at least their child will still be alive.
For the children in the care of the Griffin Centre, their parents made the right choice – for whatever reason, the home situation wasn’t the best one for their child. Being in a group home means these teens are not only alive but they continue to live in their home community, close to their family and able to attend school.
I fear the consequences of Doug Ford and others propagating stigma and suggesting that our kids are ‘better off’ in institutions. I worry that one of the effects of the stigma he’s spreading will be for families in crisis to not seek help until it’s too late. I hope that parents don’t get the message that their children will be taken away from them and locked up. I genuinely fear that Doug Ford and the media who uncritically spread his message of hate and bigotry may end up with blood on their hands.