voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit

Practicing Patience and Channelling Anger: Being a Disabled Woman

By Stephanie Chipeur

Last spring, two events took place in my life only one week apart from each other that taught me about the battle between anger and patience as a disabled woman who uses a wheelchair.

First, I moved out of a community-based rehabilitation centre in Montréal on March 15, 2016. This centre has a live-in program for individuals with spinal cord injuries (like me).

I gained so much from the experience of living in a rehab centre for eight months. For example, I can now navigate Montréal's bike lanes in warmer weather on my own or with friends. Plus (and most importantly), I learned how to balance hot coffee from the cafeteria in a wheelchair on my own.

However, there were a few things at the centre that are hard to look back on and did not serve the centre’s rehabillitative purpose.  Like the serious burns on my shoulder when a nurse's aide heated my Magic Bag longer than I asked and, though I felt the heat, I did not know it was burning me. Or when a nurse's aide spilled my own urine all over my legs but could not help me take a shower, because it was not my designated “shower time". Luckily, I convinced a different aide to help me and we "broke the rules". The worst was when the food service company changed and some of my neighbours were getting sick from the new food.

These types of occurences were not abusive but they increased in frequency over the eight months that I lived there because of the institutional anxiety brought on by strikes, and work-to-rule occurring at the rehab centre. Only one month after I had originally moved in the provincial government had announced it would be closing the centre  down and moving it to another location closer to acute care facilities.

On March 21st, one short week after I moved out of the rehab, I decided to attend an event where two women from the Huronia Speakers Bureau gave a presentation at McGill’s Faculty of Law.[1] By happenstance, I was entering the building just as the two speakers arrived. One of them was using a walker so I rolled over to show her the accessible way to get into the faculty. She helped me get a leaf out of my hair.

During the presentation, the two women shared their experiences as survivors of institutionalized abuse and as representative plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against the Government of Ontario. I was deeply interested in this presentation on a personal level, both as someone who has lived in a hospital and a rehab centre for 16 months and as a woman.

Some friends of mine, who are also in post-graduate studies and use mobility devices, attended the presentation as well. We all squished our wheelchairs and scooters at the top of the Moot Court room. We would not dare to get on the designated lift in case we got stuck mid-way, wanted to leave to use the washroom, or needed to leave to meet pre-arranged transportation if the event went longer than we had planned for.

The presentation was incredibly moving. I was surprised that there weren't many allies there to show support for these survivors. Especially when the following week the Moot Court room and an overflow room would be packed to discuss the fallout from the Jian Ghomeshi trial. The women from the Huronia Speakers Bureau delivered a stinging critique of class actions as a means of obtaining justice in circumstances of institutionalized violence and humiliation. They shared their conflicting feelings about their own personal healing process, the publicness of being representative plaintiffs, and their lawyers’ goals of settlement rather than trial.

Unfortunately I didn't get to see the end of their presentation because I booked my transportation too early.

Oh well, maybe I’ll plan better next time...

[1] The event was advertised as follows: “The Disability and the Law Portfolio of the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) will be hosting an event commemorating the survivors of the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia, Ontario. Huronia was the oldest and largest institution for people with intellectual disabilities in Canada.
Originally known as the "Orillia Asylum for Idiots", Huronia was operated by the Government of Ontario from 1876 to 2009. In 2009, Huronia survivors filed a class action lawsuit against the government for systemic abuse and neglect. The parties reached an out-of-court settlement in 2013.
Les demandeurs principaux, Marie Slark et Pat Seth, accompagnés de leur tuteur à l’instance, Marilyn Dolmage, discuteront de leur expérience au centre Huronia. Ils aborderont aussi les défis qu'ils ont rencontrés en intentant une action juridique contre le gouvernement d’Ontario. Roberto Lattanzio, avocat pour les droits des personnes handicapées et directeur exécutif du ARCH Disability Law Center à Toronto, ainsi que Mélanie Bénard, co-fondatrice de Québec Accessible, présenteront et animeront la discussion. La conférence sera suivie d’une courte réception.”


Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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