New Brunswick

Out of the attic: New course reveals disturbing history of struggle for inclusion

Advocates for people with intellectual disabilities are working on curriculum for New Brunswick schools about the history of inclusion.

Students learn everything from isolation to auxiliary classes for youth with intellectual disabilities

Danny Soucy, acting executive director of the New Brunswick Association for Community Living, said he wants people to know about the history of inclusion and that everyone has a right to belong. (CBC News)

Julie Stone can still remember her father telling her about "Sammy in the barrel," a boy next door who was kept in a wooden barrel when his own father was out working on the farm.

The New Brunswick man said he was trying to protect the boy, who had developmental disabilities, from the outside world.

It's one of the stories that inspired Stone as she developed a curriculum for New Brunswick schools on the history of inclusion involving Canadians with intellectual disabilities.

"I know one where a man lived in an attic his entire life until he was about 65," said Stone, an education consultant.

"Never saw his mother from the time he was three years old until he was 65."

In connection with Canada 150 last year, the New Brunswick Association for Community Living helped develop several social studies courses on the history of inclusion, a history that begins with a time when inclusion was almost unknown.

The courses were rolled out earlier this year at two schools, Devon Middle School in Fredericton and Nackawic High School.

There are also plans to test the program at two Saint John schools, Forest Hills and St. John the Baptist-King Edward School, and at several francophone schools in the northeast. 

The pilot program consists of seven interactive lessons of 45 minutes each.

A journey of isolation

Decade by decade, the lessons look at the history of people with intellectual disabilities, who were often kept in isolation during the 19th century and much of the 20th. Community services expanded in the 1960s, but children were still being schooled in separate classes in church basements in the 1970s. 

On the history page of its website, the Canadian Association for Community Living reminds visitors of the harmful, wrong language once used to describe children with these disabilities, reprinting a letter to the editor that was titled "Backward children."

"Some of the people … were kept in attics and cellars and bedrooms that were locked," Stone said of society's early attitudes. "When company came, those people were kept away …  neighbours might not even know you had a child with a disability.

"A lot of kids were sent to institutions after their birth. Some were sent to institutions later, because parents found it difficult to look after them, and there were no supports and services."

We all have a value, we all have a right to be part of a community.-Danny  Soucy , New Brunswick Association for Community Living

Students are also learning about people like Mary Huestis Pengilly, who was a patient at the New Brunswick Provincial Hospital in Saint John in 1883.

While there, Huestis Pengilly kept a diary detailing the abusive and dismissive treatment she received from doctors and nurses.  

"If I were the most miserable woman in the city of St. John, I would be entitled to better treatment," she wrote. 

Stone said the people who ran the old institutions didn't intend to be mean.

"They were doing what they thought was the right thing at the time and on the advice of the medical people," she said. "This child won't walk, this child won't talk, this child won't learn."

Everyone's the same

The course also looks at the evolution of inclusion. In education, the association describes this as fully including people with intellectual disabilities in regular schools, with proper support from early childhood through post-secondary school and adult life-long learning.

The course highlights the importance of feeling empowered, standing up against discrimination and promoting social justice.

Stone referred to the 1980s, when a bill was passed requiring all students to go to school together and learn in common environments.

"We're asking teachers to teach in an inclusive system … very few of them probably know why they're even doing it, why inclusive education would be important," she said.

When they go to school, she said students are also learning in an inclusive system and they don't even realize it.

"To have a great future we have to look at our past so we don't repeat the same mistakes," said Danny Soucy, acting executive director of the New Brunswick Association for Community Living.

"It is part of our history the same as the history of women in Canada, the history of Acadians here in New Brunswick, the history of people of African descent. That's being taught in schools today, and we need to make sure all the different groups that were marginalized in the past —  [that] people know about."  

Soucy said he wants people to know that everyone has a right to belong.

"We all have a value, we all have a right to be part of a community."

Soucy said he's hopeful the pilot project will eventually become part of the New Brunswick curriculum, a step that would be up to the Department of Education.

CBC News asked the Department of Education for comment. 

With files from Information Morning Fredericton