GUEST COLUMN: Community Living in BC: A far cry from ‘Families First’

Our society and social attitudes toward people with disabilities have, thankfully, evolved significantly over the past several decades.

Our society and social attitudes toward people with disabilities have, thankfully, evolved significantly over the past several decades.

Institutionalization is a thing of the past, and much of the stigma associated with physical and cognitive disabilities has dissipated thanks to integrated education and community inclusion, most people know someone with a developmental disability—a neighbour, class-mate, co-worker, or someone who shares the same interests.

Today, people with developmental disabilities make important contributions to the fabric of our society, and participate in all aspects of community life.

The B.C. government was among the first in the world to close large institutions for people with developmental disabilities. And, in collaboration with families, non-profits, private caregivers, unions, and other organizations, services were developed to support individuals in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities. B.C. was heralded as a world leader.

Unfortunately, today’s policy makers – often prioritizing the public purse over public welfare – have lost touch with the fact that most people with developmental disabilities depend upon varying levels of services and supports in order to participate fully in community life.

Depending on the nature of their disability, some people require 24/7 assistance from trained caregivers to help with single or complex needs associated with physical mobility, communication skills, intellectual processing, impulse control, mental health, or risk management safeguards.

These folks typically live in group homes, attend day programs, or receive in-home and community inclusion support where they have the opportunity to develop skills and lifelong friendships.

But these services and supports are now under threat by provincial budget cuts. Government spending in the community living sector decreased from 2.21 per cent of BC’s total annual expenditures in 2001-2002 to 1.53 per cent in 2011-2012, while the overall population increased by 13.6 per cent and inflation grew at a rate of 20.4 per cent.

Last year alone, Community Living BC (CLBC), the Crown agency that allocates provincial government funding to the sector, slashed funding by $22 million, claiming that “cost recoveries” through this “service redesign” process would be re-allocated to address new service requirements.

At the same time, CLBC spokespersons claim that the agency does not maintain records associated with waiting lists; rather, they track “outstanding service requests” which, they claim, is not public information.

Fiscal responsibility is a laudable goal, but recent cuts have caused people with developmental disabilities to lose their homes, friends, support staff, and security. Forty group homes in the province were closed down in 2010-2011.

Residents have been placed in less costly unlicensed home sharing settings—where an adult with a developmental disability is housed with his/her support provider—in many cases, against their wishes and the wishes of their families.

And while the number of spaces in staffed residential settings declines due to group home closures, the number of eligible adults who urgently require support  continues to grow.

As families try to cope with these changes, many are struggling to provide adequate care for their adult children with severe challenges, on their own, with fewer supports and services. And, as both caregivers and their adult children with disabilities age, the situation will inevitably worsen while families face declining financial and physical resources as well as an uncertain future.

The current crisis in B.C.’s community living sector has been caused by a systems “redesign” process that was misrepresented to families and advocates as a way to provide improved individualized service.

Instead, drastic funding cuts have imposed unrealistic expectations on families, agencies, communities and support providers.  Human tragedies have already resulted, with more hardships to follow unless this “redesign” is halted and formally reviewed.

Families, self-advocates, service providers, academics, professionals, caregivers, and community organizations have called on the BC government to increase funding; create an independent oversight mechanism and investigation process;  provide a range of service and support options, including group homes, to meet existing and evolving needs of individuals;  and develop and implement a provincial framework for home sharing, covering matters such as service standards, health and safety, respite, training, and oversight.

The BC-Community Living Action Group (BC-CLAG: www.CommunityLivingAction.org) urges the Premier of British Columbia to ensure that people with disabilities are not overlooked in her “Families First” agenda.

Our group’s invitations to collaborate have been largely ignored. The time has come for government to more fully accept their responsibility to support our most vulnerable citizens, their families, and the support providers who work every day to maximize their potential. Too many lives are at stake for any of us to delay any longer.

Alanna Hendren is Executive Director, Developmental Disabilities Association. She wrote this article on behalf of the BC-Community Living Action Group. For a list of member groups and information visit: www.CommunityLivingAction.org