Free As a Bird [excerpt]
February 21st, 2012
When I was a kid, medicine there was one word that grated on my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard: retard. That’s because my older sister, rx who was born with Down syndrome, here was often stared at, made fun of, and called names like retard by others who didn’t know any better. When I was thirteen, I looked up the word in a dictionary and found that one definition simply read: “slow or delayed learning.” I didn’t think that sounded so bad — after all, everyone has something they find difficult to learn or master — and that took the sting out of the word for me.
At the time of Jane’s birth in 1954 the attending doctor told my parents there was a good chance she would be blind, would never learn to walk, and wouldn’t likely live beyond the age of five. He also explained there was no support available to help care for her and that she would be a burden to the family. His recommendation was to have her placed in an institution for the “mentally retarded” — a term used back then. The doctor’s limited knowledge and attitude were quite typical for those days.
I’m grateful my parents weren’t influenced by the dark predictions for Jane’s future and instead brought her home from the hospital. As she grew, she had perfect vision. And she not only learned to walk, but to run, skip, and jump, too.
Jane lived into her mid-thirties. By the time of her death, she had a job and a boyfriend and lived in her own apartment. She had a full life and was loved by many. What more could one ask for from their time here on earth?
When I was younger, I had a fierce desire to defend my sister against the ridicule of others. Then, as a young adult, I enrolled in a college training program for special needs children and others with learning disabilities. One of my first jobs was working at Woodlands School. My employment in that bleak institution in New Westminster, British Columbia, lasted six long months.
While I was there, I realized what my sister’s life might have been like if my parents had taken the doctor’s advice. I’m certain she would never have reached her full potential had she been one of those fifteen hundred people who spent their lives hidden out of sight and locked behind doors.
I left Woodlands to work for the Community Living Society, an organization started by parents and caring staff who fought to get residents out of Woodlands School and into group homes in the community. The Community Living Society and other associations like it were instrumental in bringing an end to the institutionalization of disabled people in British Columbia and seeing to it that Woodlands closed forever.
The characters and events in this novel are fictitious. However, Woodlands School, as mentioned earlier, actually did exist. There were many similar government-run institutions throughout Canada and the United States, but like Woodlands, many of them have been closed. Unfortunately, there are still such places to be found both north and south of the border.
Woodlands began in 1878 as the provincial Lunatic Asylum. Soon after it opened, a report was written with the following description of the facility: “The place is gloomy in the extreme, the corridors narrow and sombre, the windows high and unnecessarily barred…. The establishment exceedingly overcrowded…. The patients being herded together more like cattle than human beings” (Commission of Enquiry Report of the Provincial Asylum for the Insane, 1878).
The name of the place was changed in 1950 to Woodlands School, though at best there were only twelve teachers for more than fifteen hundred “students.”
The residents of Woodlands were labelled as “severely or profoundly retarded,” or as “morons.” Some weren’t mentally disabled at all but had physical disabilities or behaviour problems that were only made worse by the isolation, monotonous environment, and lack of normal human interactions. While some came to Woodlands as older children or even adults, others were abandoned as babies and knew no other home. Many lived out their lives behind its walls, locked metal doors, and jail-like windows. Ironically, some could even look out from this castle-like fortress to the B.C.
Penitentiary next door, a maximum-security prison for society’s worst criminals.
Some of the residents had visits from relatives, but most had no contact with the outside community. Those residents who were able to built friendships with other residents, then cried each night when they had to be separated. More often than not, the ones who needed the most attention and love got the least. Woodlands, like many such institutions, was self-sufficient. It was staffed by medical and dental professionals, therapists, cooks, teachers, ward staff, and child-care workers. As a result, there was little contact with outside services such as public health, victim support, or police. In essence, it was a self-contained “city” with citizens who had no say in the running of their day-to-day life.
After Woodlands closed in 1996, the provincial government asked Ombudsman Dulcie McCallum to investigate the many complaints of abuse directed at the institution. Her report, The Need to Know: Administrative Review of Woodlands School, brought to light many of the problems inherent in institutions of this kind. She recounted that most residents had little if any contact with family or friends outside the institution. They had no control over any aspect of their lives. Even those who were capable were considered
medically and legally incompetent as “retardates” and therefore treated as if they were unable to speak for themselves or had any intellectual insight whatsoever. Some children were used for drug experiments and genetic research — some of which are known today
to be quite painful. And it wasn’t uncommon for unclaimed bodies to be regularly donated to the University of British Columbia for research.
McCallum stated that Woodlands “was a perfect place for perpetrators seeking an opportunity to physically and sexually abuse children and adults who were silent, unable to complain, not knowing how or to whom to report or who would, in many instances, not be believed. Severe punishment and threats were used to dissuade children from reporting abuse.” Her report also stated that the cruel behaviour modification techniques were rationalized by staff who felt residents “didn’t understand or feel pain, and in any event, required a strict disciplinary approach in order to learn.” Little consideration was given to the fact that “bad behaviour was a response to confinement, only spending time with people of similar disabilities, absence of effort to socialize or integrate residents into normal life, boring, bland, sterile environment.” One former resident of Woodlands described the place as “a garbage can for society’s garbage kids.”
Throughout the years there were many reported cases of physical and sexual abuse that leaked out. But according to reports, they were always handled internally. In most cases the investigation into the reported abuses was stalled by an apparent “code of silence” among the staff. Stories surfaced that staff who did report abuses were punished by some of their peers, threatened, transferred, and in one case drugged and institutionalized. As a result of peer expectations, abuse was usually brought to light by people visiting the ward, such as student nurses or family members.
In 1977 the B.C. government ordered all headstones to be removed from the institution’s cemetery. The reasons aren’t completely clear why this action was taken. Some speculate it was to appease the directors of the new Queen’s Park Hospital next door, who felt it was disturbing for patients to gaze out their windows at a cemetery. Between 1977 and 1980 some eighteen hundred headstones were removed and recycled for such purposes as lining walkways and making a barbecue for staff. Many headstones were simply discarded in the creek or sold off as building supplies. The cemetery itself was made into a park.
At its height the population of Woodlands reached an estimated fifteen hundred residents. In the past there were no support groups or organizations for parents whose children had mental, behavioural, or physical disabilities. Although some thought institutionalization was the kindest treatment for these children, the very existence of facilities such as Woodlands testified to the general opinion that these people should be kept locked away and isolated from society.
McCallum’s report paints a bleak picture of this infamous institution. However, in fairness it should be added that there were some staff members who did their best to care for the residents in a respectful and nurturing manner. And there are a few parents who felt their sons or daughters benefited from being placed there.
After Woodlands closed, it remained empty for many years, though the buildings were occasionally used by the film industry. Eventually, the provincial government sold the land to developers who began to erase all evidence of the institution’s existence. During a period of public debate over what was to happen to the few remaining buildings, a terrible fire broke out on July 10, 2008. In a few short hours the flames destroyed all but the facade of the centre block and tower, the oldest part of the institution. Two days after the fire, developers were given permission to demolish and remove the debris, but
no in-depth investigation has so far been conducted. Today the cemetery has become the Woodlands Memorial Garden and honours the more than three thousand deceased individuals who were buried at the former Woodlands cemetery. To date only about nine
hundred grave markers have been recovered. Officials say no more graves will be removed or dismantled.
The valuable real estate overlooking the Fraser River and the mountains beyond continues to be molded into modern townhouses and apartment towers. Only the black monoliths covered in headstones at the back of the property are left to remind us all that more than a century of undervalued people once lived and died there.
For the needs of the needy shall not be ignored forever; the hopes of the poor shall not always be crushed. (Psalms 9:18)
For more information on the Internet, check out www.bcacl.org/index.cfm?act=main&call=A75B1B75.
To read the report written by Dulcie McCallum, see www.bcacl.org/documents/Woodlands_Abuse/The_Need_to_Know.
To view Asylum: A Long Last Look at Woodlands by photographer and artist Michael de Courcy, go to www.michaeldecourcy.com/asylum.
A teacher’s guide for Free as a Bird is available at www.dundurn.com/teachers.
Essay Date: Spring 2011