2018 Report to the UN, pt.1: A Brief History of Autistics in Ontario

NOTE: We have split our UN report on Human Rights for Autistics in Ontario into sections and are blogging them. This section provides some historical background into the barriers we face today.

A brief history of autistics in Ontario: The residential institutionalization era
In the first half of the 20 century, Canada institutionalized many IDD and autistic people. Under the medical model of intellectual disability, many families viewed institutionalization as essential and very few parents had the good sense to keep their children out of institutions.

In residential institutions, abuse was common and there were no genuine systems in place to prevent it. Indeed, it can be argued that abuse was built into the institutional model, where an unachievable level of compliance was demanded from all residents. Residents were not allowed freedom of movement, were forcibly committed/or lacked any means to live freely, were overly-medicated with extreme drug regimes, were abused physically, sexually and emotionally and were forced to do unpaid manual labour to earn profit for the institutions under the auspices of “training”.

For autistic residents, PTSD and a host of so-called “behaviours” resulted from these experiences. These behaviours, which communicated the very inhumane conditions under which residents lived, were received with further punishments from institution staff. This pattern of abuse led to a lifetime marked by fear and pain for autistic and IDD residents. As autism historian Steve Silberman writes, “Behaviours caused by institutionalization under brutal conditions were then viewed as part of the ‘natural’ course of autism.”

The institution at Huronia, located in rural Ontario, is an example. Huronia was opened in 1877 as a “home for the feeble minded”. In the early years, residents lived and slept in wards with as many as 50 residents; in the 1970s, the facility was divided into smaller units with 12 residents living side by side. Beatings, isolation, restraints and humiliation were a part of everyday life. Forced sterilizations were routinely performed, despite it contravening Ontario law. Patients were forced to work for no wages in farming and piecework. Due to this practice, the institution ran at a profit. Most residents did not have the freedom to leave the institution; at first due to commitment laws and later due to poverty, fear and other factors.

Except for schooling or outings, male and female residents did not interact. However, male attendants had unregulated access to both female and male residents. As the later class-action suit documented, rape was endemic at Huronia.

In the early 2000s, Huronia was the subject of a $35 million dollar class-action lawsuit over the allegations of widespread physical and sexual abuse. The lawsuit brought new information to the surface and was a moment of reckoning for Ontario’s institutional system. The lawsuit was fully settled in 2013 and included apologies from the governmental parties under whose watch the abuses occurred.

In March 2009, the Government of Ontario officially closed the last remaining institution in the province. A period of “de-institutionalization” in Ontario followed, where the government re-introduced institutionalized persons to the community. The period included the birth of a vibrant Community Living movement, which still exists today – advocating for independent living, free of institutionalization and free of poverty.

In the 1980s, disability became a protected category under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Very slowly, policy has begun to turn towards an accommodation model of disability and away from the medical model. In March 2010, Canada ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD commits Canada to a series of measures and principles to improve the social and economic condition of people with disabilities while taking steps to improve their legal and political rights.

Read the full report