Historically, people with disabilities have been regarded as individuals to be pitied, feared or ignored.
They have been seen as helpless victims, offensive adversaries, heroic people overcoming tragedy and charity cases that are dependent on others for their wellbeing and care.
The media would focus on heartwarming stories of inspiration that reinforced stereotypes and patronized and underestimated people’s abilities. They have also been treated as people who are incapable of making decisions about their own lives. Behaviour, life skills, social skills programs and so on were set up to address what they needed based on their diagnosis.
In 1968 a Swedish parents association gathered for a meeting and developed a motto “We speak for them”. The people they were referring to were their sons and daughters with disabilities.
Those sons and daughters were in attendance at the meeting and came together deciding they wanted to speak for themselves and made a long list of changes they wanted made to their services. This spawned the People First Movement, which soon spread to England and Canada.
In 1973 the first People First Canada Conference was held in British Columbia. The theme was “May We Have a Choice”. People from all over the world attended this conference and were inspired to bring the message and the mission back to their home countries, provinces and towns.
People First of Ontario consists of a group of self-advocates that meet regularly and participate in provincewide advocacy for people with disabilities to achieve equality. Their meetings and conferences are organized by self-advocates with support only when they ask for it.
The following is their driving force: “We want people in the community to see us as people first. The problem is we are still being labelled with damaging words like retarded and slow. We have been taken away from our families and communities, and have been kept in institutional settings. We have been kept in segregated workshops and schools apart from other people in our community. People have forgotten that we have the same dreams and the same needs as they do.”
Their goals are to promote equality for all persons, to assist other people trying to speak up for themselves and make their own decisions, to teach the members about the rights, abilities, and strengths of People First Ontario.
There are many People First Chapters throughout Ontario.
In Parry Sound, a local group of self-advocates gathers to meet and discuss local issues relating to equality of people with disabilities and they hope to one day have a local People First chapter.
The group has chosen to call themselves the Parry Sound Self-Advocates, also known as The Eagles, because as stated by self-advocate Becky Jones, “everybody flies in different ways”.
The group has adopted this as their motto, along with their purpose, identified as, “For self-advocates to go within the community and say we belong here! We can go and join community groups. We will support each other if something happens that we are not sure about. We will ask staff for assistance with support and we will support each other and be self-advocates.”
They have created a bill of rights and responsibilities in partnership with staff from Community Living Parry Sound and other agencies. The bill reflects how they feel they deserve to be treated in the community.
The group meets monthly and holds elections annually for president, vice president, secretary and treasurer.
They facilitate their own meetings with input from staff from Community Living Parry Sound or volunteers when requested.
The most pressing topic at their meetings currently is finding a way to educate high school students about bullying to end targeting of people with disabilities outside of the high school as they walk by.
This has been an issue for many years and they believe it is lack of education for students that creates it.
Acting President Carl Dalrymple states, “We are trying to get together to help others and stop bullying outside of school yards.”
The plan is to collaborate with high school students who want to help them in this goal. Carl’s message to other self-advocates is, “Hang in there; we will keep working to make things better.”
All provincial chapters and People First organizations worldwide have one common goal: to change the way people with disabilities are viewed and treated in their communities; to be seen as people first. A disability is something that they have, not something they are. Don’t we all have a diagnosis of some sort? We don’t allow it to define who we are; we live with it and go on with our lives making accommodations for it when necessary.
Unfortunately, society has forced people with developmental disabilities of any kind to be defined by their diagnosis.
This has happened for so many years that we now need organizations like People First to fight for what should have been from the start: equality for all people with a focus on individual strengths and potential areas of community contribution. They do not want to be called cute, receive pity hugs or special treatment.
They want you to treat them the same way you would any other child, teenager, adult, senior in the community: with respect. Be mindful that they want to be treated as people first, and they accept the rights and responsibilities that accompany this respectful recognition. .