Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Resolve MDC's future

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The Province of Manitoba created a working group in 2010 to study options for the future of the Manitoba Developmental Centre, an institution for those with severe intellectual disabilities.

Four years later, and the public is still waiting for an answer.

More important, the disability community has grown impatient over an issue it believes is a matter not just of good health and social policy, but also fundamental human rights. If they are correct, then the 220 residents of the MDC are suffering a loss of dignity and well-being because of Broadway's refusal to act.

The MDC used to manage about 1,500 clients in the 1960s at its centre in Portage la Prairie, but the numbers started to fall dramatically in the 1980s under new government policy that embraced the idea that people with mental health and intellectual disabilities should be deinstitutionalized and integrated into the community.

That trend has continued unabated and most provinces have shuttered their old institutions and moved patients into community-living arrangements. The St. Amant Centre is also slowly relocating clients with severe disabilities.

The MDC is not accepting new patients, but the government recently invested $40 million in upgrading the ancient facility, suggesting it either intends to operate until the last resident dies, or it will give it a new mandate, possibly as a treatment centre for individuals with acute problems, such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

The latter option makes the most sense, but the problem is the province has refused to shed any light on its intentions, saying only it is waiting for the report of a working group.

With well-paying union jobs at stake in the rural community, however, critics have said the government doesn't want to make a decision that might upset both the town and organized labour.

It's also possible, however, that the province honestly believes the residential facility provides a necessary option for some clients. The argument goes, some people with severe developmental disabilities and intense medical requirements need the kind of care and protection that can only be provided in an institutional setting.

The fact that most provinces have closed similar institutions, moreover, is not an argument for shuffling out the last residents of the MDC.

Group homes are more natural settings than institutions, but they may not be suitable for every individual with an extreme disability.

Indeed, the move to house mental health patients in the community in the 1980s resulted in a series of unintended consequences. Many ended up living alone in the inner city without the promised supports, while others became involved with the criminal justice system. Penitentiaries reported in the late 1990s an influx of prisoners with mental health problems.

The disabilities of those in the MDC are so severe that most would require regular supervision in a group home, but some guardians have said they are more comfortable with an institutional setting, which at least some clients regard as home.

A Toronto law firm that files class-action lawsuits against institutions like the MDC has announced it is looking for a current or former client of the facility to launch a similar action here.

The threat may have no direct bearing on the future of the facility, but in considering its options the government must be sure that keeping disabled people in a locked institution is not inherently wrong or a violation of human rights. No one with an intellectual disability should be institutionalized unless they have severe medical needs too.

This a complex issue, but the government is only prolonging the controversy by refusing to make a decision, or at least provide data on the residents so independent observers can assess their needs.

The province must either defend the status quo, or propose an alternative that is in the best interests of those with severe intellectual handicaps.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2014 A8

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