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Campaign of remembering

History of Disability Rights-N.L. project aims to improve policies


By Kristine Power

The disability rights movement in Newfoundland and Labrador has a long and rich history.

Joanne MacDonald, a white woman in her late 60s who uses a wheelchair, and Mary Reid, a white woman in her late 50s sitting on a chair, sit in the Jumping Bean Cafe in the QEII Library.
From left are Joanne MacDonald and Mary Reid in the Jumping Bean Cafe in the QEII Library.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

But when advocates Mary Reid and Joanne MacDonald went looking for it, they discovered very little of that history preserved in the province’s archives.

“There was a significant lack of information on the history of disability in the province,” said Ms. MacDonald, a Paralympian and Order of Canada recipient.

So, Ms. MacDonald and Ms. Reid, the former executive director of the Independent Living Resource Centre in St. John’s, created the History of Disability Rights N.L. to fill the void.

Kim White, a white woman in her late 30s who uses a wheelchair, interviews Catherine Rogers, a white woman in her mid 30s, and Gail St. Croix, a white woan in her late 40s who uses a wheelchair as part of research project. They are sitting in front of a wall of windows looking over downtown St. John's while being filmed.
From left are Kim White interviewing Catherine Rodgers and Gail St. Croix as part of the History of Disability Rights N.L. research project.
Photo: Submitted

It’s a small organization that they co-lead to collect, preserve and promote that history.

“The evolution of rights and services and people’s lives and how people with disabilities lives changed in the province, that was never kept anywhere,” said Ms. Reid. “Without having that history, we were concerned that we might start to slip back and services would start to erode because it is not well-known what was there or how we got to that point.”

The pair began the six-year journey by collecting archival material from wherever they could find it, including people’s basements and community organizations.

“We looked at each other and thought we need to get the stories from people, too.” — Joanne MacDonald

Many phone calls and emails later, they have created a timeline that documents key milestones in the disability rights movement in Newfoundland and Labrador, beginning in the 1800s and up to 2010.

“What kinds of things happened, what legislation happened . . . when did the language change because the language at the beginning was absolutely horrendous, you could see the evolution and the change of the language used by the medical field, by politicians, by community groups,” said Ms. MacDonald. “That was our starting point, but at some point, we looked at each other and thought we need to get the stories from people, too.”

‘Creating change and collaboration’

With funding provided by Library and Archives Canada, the women facilitated a series of video interviews with 13 people from Newfoundland and Labrador who advocated for equity for persons with disabilities from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Roger Baggs, a white man in his late 40s, sits in front of a wall of windows looking over downtown St. John's while being filmed.
Project participant Roger Baggs during an interview.
Photo: Submitted

While the list is not exhaustive, it’s a start, they say.

“The people who did share their stories on the videos come from communities of people with intellectual disabilities, mental health issues and physical disabilities, so the challenges that people were dealing with in their experiences every day were quite varied, but there was that single common thread of creating change and collaboration,” said Ms. Reid.

Launch event on March 6

In collaboration with the Archives and Special Collections at Memorial University Libraries, the videos are now available online through the Digital Archive Initiative.

An official launch will take place on Wednesday, March 6, at the Queen Elizabeth II Library from 1-2:30 p.m. on the third floor.

The women hope that the information, the videos and the timeline will be used by academics and policy-makers to create better policies going forward.

“It’s been too long in terms of disability that policies don’t relate to what people want and need, but with this strong documentation that was led by people with disabilities there is greater evidence for developing policies that are going to work better,” said Ms. Reid.

“I don’t think either one of us wants to be the centre of the story,” said Ms. MacDonald. “The centre of the story is the individuals who put themselves out there and agreed to talk about their work, about their lives, and about the issues they dealt with and their disability.”

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