Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Sad Reality

Recent CBC investigative reports (which you can find here, here, here, and here) reveal a disturbing reality in Special Care Homes in New Brunswick.  People who depend on these facilities for care (seniors, people with physical and/or intellectual disabilities) are subject to emotional and physical abuse, neglect, improper use of medication, and the worst kind of disrespect, all from the people entrusted to provide their care.

These reports should shock and scandalize New Brunswickers, but sadly should not surprise them.  The world can be a hostile place for the most vulnerable people in our midst, particularly men and women with intellectual disabilities, who so often cannot speak for themselves.

The New Brunswick government needs to address the broken system that allows these types of abuses to happen.  Are your listeners aware that the minimum staffing standards for these for-profit Special Care Homes in New Brunswick are vastly lower than in other Atlantic Provinces?  They may be shocked to find that homes like these can provide care for up to 6 people with just one staff on duty at any given time, and can support up to 14 people with just two caregivers.  In environments like this, is it any doubt that abuses happen? 

L’Arche seeks to support people with intellectual disabilities in an environment that fosters mutual relationships and personal growth.  We affirm the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.  It is no wonder, then, that our little L’Arche community in Saint John, which provides care for five men and women with disabilities, fundraises over $70,000 per year.  This is necessary to provide a quality of life that is safe, fulfilling, and in keeping with what any of us would want for ourselves or our family members.  It is a shame that the funding provided by the New Brunswick government falls so abysmally short of allowing us to give people the care and the life they deserve.

The government would claim that waiting lists are short for people with disabilities waiting for care in New Brunswick.  Of course they are.  Who would wish their loved one to be subjected to an environment such as the one revealed in these incident reports?  It is time for the province to support organizations like L’Arche, who seek to raise the minimum standard of care for our most vulnerable citizens to a level that New Brunswickers can be proud of.

Monday, June 2, 2014


I’m always searching for the “elevator pitch” to describe L’Arche.  You know, the sentence that captures the essence of who we are and what we do, and can be delivered in the length of time it takes to ride an elevator.  It’s not easy.  Sure, L’Arche is an organization that creates home and work with men and women who have intellectual disabilities.  L’Arche is a worldwide movement that advocates for full citizenship for people traditionally left on the margins of society.  L’Arche is an intentional community that nurtures deep relationships between people of diverse abilities.

But L’Arche is so much more than that.

I’ve lived at L’Arche Cape Breton for almost 20 years.  I arrived upon completion of my university degree to be a live-in assistant (caregiver) for men and women with disabilities.  I came convinced that I had a lot to offer, and that L’Arche would be lucky to have me!  Turns out, I was the lucky one.  The education of the heart that I have received here, the skills I have developed, and the friends I have made, have tied me to this place for two decades, and I expect will keep me here for many more.

I met my husband here, and we’re raising our four kids in this incredible community.  Our children are growing up in a way that few others are.  They have a couple of dozen friends they see each week who each have an intellectual disability.  They know people who use wheelchairs or walkers, people who don’t speak, grownups who need help with things like eating or getting around.  They know that people are different, as they know who in the family is left or right-handed, or whose hair is straight or curly.  Difference is ordinary.

But I remember when my oldest reached the stage when we wanted to talk with her about disability as a particular form of difference.  It’s not an easy concept to communicate to a three year old, especially if what you want to communicate is that disability isn’t a disease.  It isn’t something that makes you less human.  It isn’t a problem to be solved.  My experience with people with disabilities in L’Arche has taught me to think differently, to see the world differently, to laugh more, to forgive easier, to live with compassion, to learn from unexpected teachers. 

We tried our best to explain all this in simple terms and crossed our fingers that at least some of it made it through.  A few minutes later, when we had moved on to other topics, she casually asked, “Can we talk about possibilities again?”  “You mean disabilities?”, her dad asked.  “Yeah, possibilities.”  What a wonderful mix-up in language.

Because of course my toddler’s  “mistake” is really what L’Arche is all about – possibilities.  The possibility that people on the margins of society can change the world.  The possibility that a university graduate and a person who can’t tie their own shoes can form a bond that lasts a lifetime.  The possibility that someone who was in a “special class” in high school can host their own radio show.  The possibility that embracing weakness and vulnerability actually makes us stronger. 

L’Arche has opened me up to a world of possibilities.  And that’s the best elevator pitch I could hope for.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Stand on Humble Ground

It has been about a year since Jamie first arrived at L’Arche Cape Breton.  Sturdily built and well over six feet tall, Jamie is a gentle giant.  He is generous and sincere, eager to know others and also to be known.  He is a community builder.

When Jamie finished high school, he saw his peers moving on with their lives – getting jobs, having girlfriends, moving into their own places.  In Jamie’s words, “I didn’t want to live with my parents forever.  I love them and everything but I want to learn how to be independent.  Every one of my friends is doing it.  I’m probably not going to be just like them but I want to be as close as I can to them.”

In a recent CBC radio interview, Jamie was asked what was the highlight of his starring role in the L’Arche Cape Breton Christmas production of “The Three Kings”.  While he admitted to being excited about acting, having a vocal solo, and being on stage, he noted that what he appreciated most about his theatrical debut was “just doing it together.”  In front of the audience on the day of the show, when talking about his first year at L’Arche, Jamie talked excitedly about meeting “German people, Indian people Kenyan people….but most importantly just a lot of friendly people.”

Jamie’s first L’Arche birthday celebration was “80’s Karaoke” at Corinthian House.  He relaxed on the couch, surrounded by an eclectic group of new friends, while the music played in the background and the words to Eye of The Tiger and other classics were projected on the living room wall.  We all struggled through a few verses of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, by Tears for Fears, and then Jamie requested “Who Made Who” by ACDC.  Without moving from the couch, Jamie belted out the most authentic, unrestrained, ear-splitting version of that rock classic that any of us had ever heard!  There was not a trace of self-consciousness, nor any need to be in the spotlight.  There was just a guy singing a song he loved, surrounded by people with whom he felt completely at ease.

After almost 20 years in L’Arche, I still have so much to learn.  And this twenty-something year old, hard-rock loving, Sydney Mines man is one of my teachers.  Jamie knows he doesn’t have all the answers.  He knows he needs help and he accepts it with grace.  He celebrates the good in others and in himself, and in so doing he creates goodness in the community.  Jamie stands on humble ground.