Richard McDonald hopes his book on living in two B.C. institutions will help keep history from repeating itself
Michelle Strutzenberger

Freedom is what Richard McDonald speaks of first when he contrasts his life today with the 18 years he lived in two of B.C.’s large institutions for people who have an intellectual disability.

Whether it’s deciding what time he goes to bed, what he does for a hobby or where he’ll help out in the community, the B.C. resident says he most enjoys just doing his own thing now, “and not being told what to do and when to do it.”

“I have my own computer; I have my own place to live and I enjoy it,” says Richard, whose Burnaby apartment is part of a residence owned by posAbilities.

He describes a full life that includes attending meetings at city hall where he is a member of a committee advocating on behalf of former institution residents, bowling and participating in Special Olympics.

“It’s all stuff I like to do and I’m just happy that I’m doing it.”

Richard is also busy these days promoting his new book which tells his story of living in the institutions, including the renowned Woodlands school.

Opened in New Westminster in 1878 as the Provincial Asylum for the Insane, Woodlands has since been proven to have operated in a way that contributed to ongoing abuse. It was closed in 1996. A class-action lawsuit on behalf of former residents, launched in 2002, was settled in 2010 and is currently being adjudicated.

Efforts to close large institutions for people who have an intellectual disability have been underway across Canada for several decades. Ontario shut down its last institution in 2009. Other provinces are still in various stages of replacing these systems.

InclusionBC, an organization supporting people who have an intellectual disability, describes some of what’s been discovered to be wrong with institutions.

“We now know that institutions cannot begin to tap the potential of individuals to learn, participate and contribute to their communities,” the organization states in a write-up. “They isolate people from family, friends, and communities. And increasingly, we are finding out that they create high-risk environments for abuse and neglect.

“The experience of the past few decades has shown that no one needs to be separated from their community because of a disability. Living among family, friends and neighbours fosters new abilities and creates communities where everyone is welcome. Even those who require extra support or specialized care have a better quality of life when they receive care and support in their home and community, rather than in an institution.”

Richard recalls the abuse as the most difficult aspect of his experience at the institutions, especially seeing others mistreated, and he has strong words for the perpetrators. “The only way I can put this is, ‘Don’t abuse others unless you know how to abuse yourself,’” he says, adding, “no human should be abused and nobody should go through what (the residents) had done to them.”

While letting those memories fade completely might be the easier choice, Richard decided to write a book about his experiences at the institutions.

His goal, he says, is to “make sure that people know that they don’t want to go through that situation with their own son or daughter.”

Written and printed with the support of Heather Bax from the New Westminster Writer’s Guild and Meaghan Feduck, a graduate student with the UBC School of Social Work, Richard’s book, My Story, is now available for purchase. Contact posAbilities at 604-299-4001 to learn how you can obtain a copy.

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