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VIBERT: Basic rights for intellectually-challenged seems a no-brainer

Asked what he thought of western civilization, Mohandas Gandhi is purported to have replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”

The mahatma made enough profound pronouncements that it’s unnecessary to invent more, but the unverifiable quip, along with the authentic Gandhi observation that the true measure of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, plays on the mind these days.

That’s because the province of Nova Scotia is defending itself against the indefensible again, this time at a human rights inquiry and against advocates for persons with intellectual disabilities.

Lawyer Vince Calderhead, working pro-bono, social worker Jo-Anne Pushie, and others are making the case that locking away people with intellectual disabilities when, with support, they can live back in the community, is a violation of their basic rights.

That seems like a no-brainer, but a human rights inquiry is a legal proceeding so the outcome doesn’t have to make sense to anyone unimpaired by a law degree. Try not to make the mistake of confusing justice and law, for it is only a happy coincidence when the two are in perfect harmony.

A 13-year-old report that warned the province of its liability – legal and moral – in institutionalizing people who are deemed able to return to the community, surfaced at the inquiry last week. It made a sizable splash as it proves the province knew, for more than a decade, that people were being held, sometimes involuntarily, on psychiatric wards because housing and other supports are inadequate at the community level. 

That’s not a big surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of mental health services in Nova Scotia, but it’s handy to have documented evidence that the government was aware long ago that, if not addressed, it’s confinement of these people would come to haunt it.

The circumstances described in that 2006 report are the same as those currently before the human rights inquiry, so the problem went mostly unaddressed and is now haunting provincial officialdom.

"(The) failure to return these individuals to a less restrictive environment is inhuman,” mental health experts Dorothy Griffiths and Chrissoula Stavrakaki wrote in the review commissioned during the Hamm government.

Their dust-covered report told three successive governments that the situation “clearly undermines the fundamental rights of these individuals."

The human rights complaint was made on behalf of three Nova Scotians who endured long-term institutional care when, with proper support, they could enjoy life in the broader community. One of the three died during the three years the case inched its way toward a hearing.

At the end of 2017, there were 82 people in hospital psychiatric settings while waiting for a placement back in the community. People have waited more than a decade for community placement, which is the responsibility of the community services department. Mental health falls under the purview of the health department.

But, this isn’t a problem created by government siloes. It’s a matter of priorities. The grim fact remains that, for all its attention, mental health gets more talk than action.

This year’s provincial budget trumpeted additional spending for mental health services of $3.2 million and $3.9 million more to help people with disabilities live independently, in the community. Those are big numbers until you compare them with the $4.2 billion health budget and $950 million spent by community services. 

In the endless juggling act that is government, the question is often asked, “what you would cut?” in this case, to find the money for community supports that would allow people to leave the psych ward when they are ready.

That’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

The government needs take proper care of the most vulnerable in society before it starts dolling out bucks for a very long list of other stuff. 

The measure of our society won’t be how smooth the roads are, how many jobs or tourists were lured, as important as all that is. Surely, in the 21st century a civilized community will help people with intellectual disabilities who are able to live in and among the community, to do so.

Much is made of ending the stigma attached to mental illness and disabilities. Locking away those who are so afflicted is the greatest stigma of all.

Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.

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