In Praise of Toronto

happy holidaysI think I wrote something about this last year at about this time when I was in Toronto with family…but it bears repeating, especially since mayor Rob Ford’s antics have caused the city’s reputation to take such a beating over the last couple of months.

I like Toronto. I don’t get there very often anymore, and it’s always a treat to visit, especially during the holidays. I like the excitement of the city during the holidays, even if the stores are crowded. And my visit there last week was especially nice because I not only got to spend time with my dad and a dear family friend, but I got to eat in a nice restaurant and do some wandering around the Eaton Centre and see “Les Miserables” at the Princess of Wales theatre. A very nice day.

Made so much nicer by the fact that, every time we set foot on public transportation that day (street car or subway), someone immediately offered their seat.

Toronto Residents Get It

I’m told that in other cities people don’t easily vacate seats, but it’s always been my experience in Toronto that people will jump up without  asking. Now, I can manage standing on public transportation, as long I can hang onto something – I hook my cane on my weak arm, widen my stance, and make sure that I’m paying attention at all times, because the stops are abrupt sometimes – but it’s nicer to be able to sit down and not have to worry about falling and knocking other people over in the process.

The people that stand out as giving up their seats for me are the teenage boy on the subway who wanted to know if I was sure when I declined (we were only going a stop), the elderly gentleman on the streetcar who, frankly, looked as if he might need the seat more than I did but insisted that I have it…and the man who spotted me from across the very crowded subway car when we got on, hopped up, and waved me over.

“Take your time…” he said, offering his arm.

When I was seated, beside his friend, he asked what stop I was getting off at. I motioned to Dad, standing by the door on the other side of the car, and said, “I need to watch him.”

“Don’t get off without her!” he called to Dad, who smiled.

“Does he want to sit down?” asked the man beside me, instantly concerned.

“No, don’t worry,” I said.

When Dad called back that out stop was approaching, I was again offered an arm and told to take my time, and sent off with a smile and a “Have a  great night!”

In the past, I’ve found that amount of assistance from someone, particularly a stranger, patronizing. I think that I’m getting better at gauging intention and letting it guide my reactions more. I think I’d rather live in a world where people offer to help, and just don’t get offended if people say no…

I know that the chances of anyone who gave up their seat for me last Thursday are slim…but thank you to all of you anyway.

Happy Holidays, everyone. 🙂

Ashley Smith’s Death Finally Declared a Homicide

ashley smithI don’t know how I’d forgotten about Ashley Smith’s story.

I do remember hearing about it, closer to when it all happened. But I’d forgotten. And I haven’t been listening to the news much lately, so I’d missed the fact that the inquest was winding up.

If you’re not from Canada, you likely haven’t heard Ashley Smith’s story. She was 19 years old. She’d been Canada’s prison system for 5 years in 2007, and would have been eligible for release in November of that year. But on October  17, 2007, in Grand Valley Institution, she tied a piece of cloth around her neck and choked herself to death in her cell. The guards watched, instructed not to enter her cell while she was still breathing.

Ashley Smith had a history of tying ligatures around her neck for, the told the prison, sensation. However, this time she’d been on suicide watch for a week after explicitly stating to a manager that she intended to kill herself. Read more here.

On December 19th, her death was declared a homicide instead of a suicide.

It’s About Time

So I know that this isn’t much of a feel-good story for the holidays…I’m going to get to one of those before Christmas, so keep reading…but I surrounded by media updates about the inquest all day on Thursday when I was in Toronto…so while (in the later hours of the day), it was great to hear that this Ashley Smith’s death had been declared a homicide, the details of her story were surrounding me all day, and I felt physically ill every time I heard them. Like I said, I’d heard about this story before, but hearing about it on the radio for the first of many times that day was like a kick in the stomach.

I’m really wrestling with is how, orders or not, the guards could stand there and watch an inmate commit suicide without intervening. I want to know what it is about working in the Canadian federal prison system that makes a guard into a person that could do that. I want to know where this disregard for human life that’s apparently infiltrated the system as a whole has come from, and why there’s either so little known about mental health conditions and their management and treatment (or why what is known has been so disregarded).

Because there was some very disturbing testimony from witnesses:

  • Psychiatrists prescribed medications to Ashley Smith without seeing her, and she was sometimes medicated against her will.
  • When she got therapy, it was through the food slot of her cell door
  • For not handing over self-harm tools, Ashley Smith’s cell was sometimes stripped leaving her with no blanket, mattress, or hygiene products and sometimes just a security gown to wear.

Read more about the witness testimony here.

The jury could not assign responsibility for Ashley Smith’s death. Determining who was responsible is an entirely different matter, and one for the police investigation that Ashley Smith’s family has requested now be re-opened.  But the jury made it clear that they didn’t think that the guards, who were originally criminally charged and then had the charges dropped, should be targeted. They want to go after the big guns. Julian Falconer, the lawyer for Ashley Smith’s family, says that the investigation will be into who gave the order not to go into her cell. (Read more here)

And I understand that. We do need to further back to fully understand what happened that day and who is ultimately responsible.

Going Back…

I got the following information from Toronto Star’s timeline on the Ashley Smith case.

Ashley was 13 when she entered the prison system as a person with a mental health diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder, which was later changed to severe borderline personality disorder. She’d thrown crab apples at a postal worker. She received a closed custody sentence at the New Brunswick Youth Centre, where she, according to the Toronto Star’s timeline, “incurred 50 additional criminal charges related to minor assaults on guards and prankish stunts such as pulling sprinklers and fire alarms or covering the window of her jail cell with scraps of toilet paper”.

In 2005, Ashley entered the adult prison system, and was transferred to a federal prison in 2006. Her attempts to self-harm, consisting of “self-strangulation with ligatures, head-banging, and superficial cuts to her arms” got her a transfer to a transfer to a psychiatric facility in 2006.

What the Toronto Star timeline doesn’t show is that in the next year, Ashley was in 17 facilities in 5 different provinces, and in segregation cells in each one.  Each time she was sent to a new prison, the clock was reset on her segregation time, to avoid having to review her segregation status (Read more here).  During her time in Joliette Detention Centre in 2007, she was medically and physically restrained twice in July, according to the Star’s timeline, for attempting to self-injure with screws from the wall. She’d die three months later, just six weeks before being eligible for release.

I’m no expert in mental health. But I don’t think it takes an expert to see that this was a young woman in chronic distress and under tremendous stress. She’d been in segregation cells for almost three years. She’d moved 17 times in a year. She was potentially facing release, which would be a tremendous transition after six formative years in prison. Juries also saw video of her being hooded and duct-taped to airplane seats during transports, and of her forced to the floor by police in riot gear and injected with drugs – post-traumatic stress disorder can’t be ruled out as something that was influencing her actions.

These videos are available for viewing here but are very disturbing. Please be safe.

Certainly she would not have easy to deal with at times. But is it any wonder that that Ashley Smith frequently tried to block the guards’ view into her cell by putting magazine pages over the camera? Or that she responded to their discipline with kicking and biting?  Or, given that self-harm was obviously a coping mechanism (and a common one in people with borderline personality disorder) that stress would have driven her to continually find new ways to do so?

Breese Davies, lawyer for the Association of Elizabeth Frye Societies, said that the videos also showed a largely hidden side of Ashley Smith: “a witty, engaging, smiley teen who in times of serenity endeared herself to those around her.” (Read more here)

It’s just such a shame that no one will get to see what Ashley could have been, what she could have accomplished, when she wasn’t always living in stress and fear.

If you take a closer look at the Toronto Star timeline, you’ll see that it took an awfully long time to get to this ruling – at one point inquest was even suspended indefinitely. It’d be great to see some lost time get made up and see that someone’s held responsible for Ashley Smith’s death – and some quick and decisive action taken on putting the 104 recommendations that the jury made in place, to help ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again. Those recommendations include:

  • Abolishing indefinite segregation sentences
  • Giving front-line staff the ability to take action to preserve an inmate’s life without seeking authorization and without “fear of discipline or reprisal”, even if it turns out that the aid wasn’t, in fact, required
  • Female inmates be accommodated in regions closest to family or supports.
  • Ensuring that nursing services are available for inmates at all times.

The list of recommendations is very thorough, and available here. Frankly, I’m quite shocked that some of these things are not in place already.

I think that one of the ones that I like best is that Ashley Smith’s case be taught as a case study to Canadian Correctional Services at all levels. I agree with the National Post’s Christie Blatchford on this one:  Canada Correctional Services killed her, and they should make sure that everyone who works for them and with them know how they did it, so that they *can’t* kill someone else in the same way (Read more here).

What’s done with the recommendations now is in the hands of Canada’s auditor general, and Canada will be watching. I hope that you will be, too.

This article says it all better than I ever could.

Rest in Peace, Ashley Smith

In this video, Ashley Smith has a candid conversation with guards as she was being transferred to the Philippe-Pinel Institute in Montreal from the Regional Psychiatric Centre in Saskatoon April 12, 2007, six months before her death. Rest in peace, Ashley – I won’t forget again.

Winter Is Back…Now, a Word About Snow and Wheelchair Ramps…

wheelchairrampLike so many communities across Canada and the United States, the small town in which I live got a lot of snow this week. A lot of snow. And I’d like to talk a bit about snow and outdoor wheelchair ramps.

Let’s start with snow. I don’t like snow. I can take being cold. I don’t like it (as the many people who’ve heard me complain about this week can confirm – did I mention that it got really cold this week too?) but I can take it. Snow’s another animal.

I still find it difficult to get around when it snows. I’ve seen that even people my age without disabilities find it difficult to navigate snow. Snow gets deep. Snow hides ice. Snow melts off footwear and leaves the the linoleum floors in the stores wet and slippery, no matter how hard the staff try to keep the floors mopped up and safe for walking.

And snow piles up on wheelchair ramps and then becomes trampled into packed snow and ice, making them not only next to impossible to use (especially for those in a manual chair), but a hazard for anyone using the ramp.

I’ve talked about this before, but now that winter is truly upon us, it bears repeating.

Wheelchair Ramps – When It Snows and Snows

In many places in Canada and the United States, it snowed and snowed and snowed on Wednesday on Thursday. Anyone intent on keeping a wheelchair ramp clear would have had to go out to clear it several times over the course of the day. On Thursday, I talked to a business that had done just that. Good for them!

And I get that it’s difficult for businesses operating with a minimum of staff doing a large amount of work to get out and shovel off a wheelchair ramp a few times a day when that becomes necessary.

It’s a logistical challenge, certainly. However, people that need that wheelchair ramp to be clear in order to get into the business didn’t ask for the disabilities that make a wheelchair ramp a necessity, and their money is just as good as everyone else’s. Business owners need to ask themselves if they can afford to potentially turn clientele away.

And they need to remember that accessibility benefits everyone.

The Case for Keeping Wheelchair Ramps Shoveled

Let’s look at a community like the one in which I live:

  • I can think of several people that I see in the town on a regular basis who use either a wheelchair, scooter, mobility aid (or, at any given time, stroller for a small child).
  • A high proportion of the population are seniors who may be more comfortable using a ramp than stairs.

As I’ve said in this blog before, when I, as a disabled person, see that a place of business is difficult for disabled people to get into and to navigate once they’re in it, my immediate reaction is that the business really doesn’t want the money of disabled people all that much. I don’t need a wheelchair ramp anymore to get into buildings – I can handle stairs, even if they’ve got some snow on them. But I had to use a wheelchair for over a year, I remember how frustrating it was not to be able to get into a building, and if I see an highly inaccessible set-up I’m inclined to go somewhere else if possible.

Because I’m always mindful too that even if I can use the stairs today, all it could take to put me in a wheelchair again or anyone in my family on crutches (or worse) would be a good fall. And suddenly wheelchair ramps and accessible entrances are very useful even on that temporary basis.

I like to support businesses that get that.

The other case for keeping wheelchair ramps clear is that if a wheelchair ramp is open, people are going to use it. And if there’s snow and ice on it and someone gets injured because of it, businesses leave themselves open to legal action. So please, for your own sake, business owners, be prepared to keep your wheelchair ramps clear. Protect your customers and yourselves.

And that’s all I’ll say about that! Enjoy the winter weather, everyone!

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free”

freedomWow, I see from my last post that it’s been nearly a month since I’ve been here! I do not like being away for so long. I do have a good…well, a reasonable…excuse, though. Readers from last year may remember that I pulled a disappearing act in November as well. November is National Novel Writing Month – a month where crazy writers like myself from all over the globe set a goal to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. It gets a little hectic, especially since for the last few years my workload in November has gotten progressively larger, but I managed to do write the 50,000 words for the the third year in a row this year, with the support of friends and a couple of weekends where I wrote almost 10,000 words. It’s a crappy novel, because I can’t edit when I’m writing when you’re writing that fast…but I did it!

But NaNoWriMo is done now, and it’s time to get back to important things that I’ve let slide – the blog, Facebook and Twitter updates, and commenting on other peoples’ blogs. I miss writing here and I want to get back to it.

Lots of things happened in November that I immediately thought that I needed to blog about: John Elder Robison’s departure from Autism Speaks, the recent FBI findings about the surge in disability-related hate crimes in America, and a particularly disturbing story about the bullying of autistic child that I did link to on the Facebook page. There’s been no shortage of stories that have caught my attention.

But today it was a post from fellow blogger Roya Rafieyan that both caught my attention and brought tears to my eyes.

I’ve written about Roya before. She’s a music therapist in an institution for intellectually disabled people. I’m fascinated by her work and so thankful that she’s there to give people who often have a great of difficulty communicating and who have very little control over their lives and choices a chance to express themselves.

Roia was talking in her blog about the challenges of working with an autistic man who doesn’t communicate using speech:

“I think, understandably, his feelings about communicating and being heard are deeply conflicted. Even if he were to begin pointing at more words and letters to communicate, the likelihood he’d be listened to is…well…slim. The people in his life are largely committed to seeing him as severely disabled. Period…Aside from trying to come to terms with the whole idea of actually communicating with me and having me understand him- overwhelming in and of itself for him, I think- there’s the fact that it probably won’t change his life in any appreciable way.”

I’ve thought about Roia’s blog all day, and why it affected me so much that I burst into tears after I read it. And even going back and reading it now, I feel tears coming again. It’s puzzling to me, because I am certainly in a different place in this man – I can make myself heard and understood. I can take actions that change my life. I am not in in an institution where I am told what to eat and when, when to get up and when to go to bed, who will be my support system (whether I like it or not)…

But when Roia talked about how her interactions with this man brought to mind the lyrics of  Billy Taylor’s, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free”, I found myself wanting to cry again

Because sometimes I do feel like my disabilities, and some of the ways that they’ve come to impact my life, in ways too personal to put out in a blog, have left me stuck me in spaces out of which it’s difficult to move. It’s a different sort of “stuck” than Roia’s client experiences – less visible, despite my physical disabilities. Less visceral. I think that up until just recently, if I’d thought about it carefully, I’d have dismissed my experience as less valid –  and maybe it is.

Or maybe it’s just different. I’m not quite sure yet.

But I don’t feel very free most days, these days.  Sometimes it feels like, no matter how hard I try to position myself so that maybe some I can feel that way, it won’t happen. It feels like I’ve entered another cycle where my disabilities feel like a weight…not something with which I’m at peace. I don’t like being there again.

But then again, maybe this has nothing to do with disabilities. Maybe this is how everyone feels by the time that they’re my age and it’s time to just suck it up and get on with it. 🙂

I’m writing a second book about disabilities, by the way. This sort of thing’s going to come up in it, I already know…

It’s nice to be back. I hope you’re all well.

If you’d like to read Roia’s blog (and I highly recommend that you do!), you can find it here: http://mindfulmusictherapist.blogspot.ca/

(By the way…please don’t take this post as trolling for sympathy. I’m perfectly aware that I’ve got it waaaaaay better than most people in the world. Just trying to work some things out…)

And for more information on National Novel Writing Month, in case you’d like to write with me next November, visit their website.