Imagine living in a place where you know you should have choices, like everyone else, but you don't.
For decades, children with mental or physical disabilities were kept apart from the general population. And as adults, they had few opportunities for education, employment, or even living fulfilling lives.
But over the past 60 years, attitudes have changed so much that we can hardly imagine a time when all citizens weren't welcome to participate in community life.
This year, the Cranbrook Society for Community Living (CSCL) marks its 60th anniversary, and its role of working for inclusivity for all citizens, so anyone can live in and contribute to the communities they call home.
Margaret Laidlaw, Executive Director of the CSCL, explains that in the 1950s it was common practice that if you had a child with a disability your physician often would encourage you to place your child in an institution."
“The thinking was that this would be the best for the child and family.
“Families were getting to the point where they were asking why: ‘We love our children very much, why do we have to send them away?’”
The thinking was different indeed. One could say it was a lot narrower. Children with all manner of disabilities, physical and mental, were grouped together willy nilly — as if just being different from the norm was enough to be separated from society. For instance:
“One person, whom we still support in this community, was sent off to an institution because he stuttered,” said Melanie Fiorentino, Director of Services for the CSCL. “The more he was teased about it, the more he stuttered, until he finally stopped speaking. So he was sent to an institution.”
“This is not to say all these institutions were bad,” Laidlaw added. “But it was a dark period, and a heartbreaking period for a lot of families.”
The years of the 1950s saw the beginning in a societal shift in attitudes, and a move towards inclusion for all citizens — inclusion in schools and inclusion in the community at large. This shift in values and attitudes was largely driven by the families themselves.
“More and more, families wanted their children to stay in their communities,” Laidlaw said. “The firm belief was that children belonged at home, learning skills to help them live in, and contribute to, their communities.
“As parents, we want our children to be the best they can be. Why should these children be any different?”
Cranbrook was part of this movement. What is now known as the Cranbrook Society for Community Living started off in 1956 as an informal network of local families, who called themselves the Kootenay Society for the Handicapped (KSH). Bert Byersteign was the Society’s first President.
The KSH opened a school in the basement of the Cranbrook United Church, with three to six children attending. Mary Little and Maisy Doaling were the teachers.
The next 20 years saw a marked increase in the push for inclusion, not just in Cranbrook, but across British Columbia and Canada. It was an idea whose time had come.
In 1969, adults were brought into the KSH’s sphere, with the launch of a “sheltered workshop for handicapped adults,” also in the United Church basement. In 1972, construction began on “Juniper School,” on 2nd Avenue North and 17th Avenue South, to house the school and the adult workshop (now Kootenay Education Services, across from Western Financial Place).
In 1972, the KSH was officially incorporated as the Cranbrook Branch of the Kootenay Society for the Handicapped, with other branches in other East Kootenay towns.
In 1975, the workshop was moved into a new building down the street — (now the Balment Centre) — which was later renamed the “Wood Factory” at the request of one of the clients. It offered employment and activities to disabled adults, paying them a nominal wage for the construction of picnic tables, benches and suchlike. It was renamed again, in 1985, as the Achievement Centre and focused on social and recreational programs. Then the KSH launched a life skills program, which operated out of various locations in Cranbrook in the 1970s.
Throughout these years, assimilation into the public school systems was ongoing.
“Handicapped” children were integrated into the public school system in 1982. In 1981, a segregated preschool development centre, later named Kids Korner Children’s Center, was opened for kids aged two years and nine months to seven years old. Over the next couple of years, both it and the students at Juniper School were integrated into the public school system. Juniper School was closed in 1982 (the building was rented to the School District), and Kids Corner closed in 1997.
In 1984 CSCL opened the Society’s first group home. CSCL now runs a network of group homes in town and provides day programming and employment services. As well they provide programming to ease clients’ transition from school into adult and community life.
In June, 1990, KSH officially changed its name to the Cranbrook Society for Community Living.
Meanwhile, over the past decades, those institutions where children used to be sent have been gradually shut down.
“B.C. was a forerunner in closing these institutions,” Laidlaw said. “This province as a whole has been very proactive.”
The evolution of the process of inclusion has involved not just the attitudes of society, or the work the organizations like the Society for Community for Community Living.
“As things have changed over the last 60 years, so have the expectations of the people we support,” Laidlaw said. “Our programming is always changing to meet the needs of those individuals.”
“The individuals are driving our ship,” Fiorentino said. “After 60 years, it’s because these individuals are letting us know what they want — if it’s to go to college, get married …”
But this evolution, this forward progress for all residents, would not be possible without the community it is based out of, which over the past 60 years has whole-heartedly provided support.
“I think we’re very lucky to be in Cranbrook,” Laidlaw said.
“I’ve been with the organization for 27 years,” Fiorentino said. “And the welcoming attitude of the community and the business community has been second to none.
“We’re very progressive. From transportation, employment, education … Cranbrook has been phenomenal.”
Inclusion is a little word that’s come a long way in the past 60 years. Laidlaw stresses it was the tremendous work of the families, who were very outspoken in their lobbying efforts. With the help of progressive provincial governments, and a welcoming community, the Cranbrook Society for Community Living is able to work alongside their clients and their families.
“The clients themselves are the best ambassadors for inclusion, when you see them out in the community being successful,” Laidlaw said.