By Paul Caune
I don’t remember when I first noticed her. I’d been living in George Pearson Centre (GPC) for months (back in 2006) and I must have passed her in its long corridors many times without giving her a passing thought.
She’s small, with a bulbous nose, a hunched figure and a wandering eye. I would see her driving around GPC in her power chair on Saturdays. It popped into my head one day: she doesn’t live here.
Soon after this a member of CARMA, an organization that mentors GPC residents who want to live independently, stopped by my room and said, “Barb wants to be your mentor. She’s a nice little lady who used to live here—she has the mentality of a five year old.”
“She’s retarded,” interjected the CARMA member’s assistant. (This struck me has a less than enlightened way to speak of my would-be mentor.) Barb wanted to mentor either me or another GPC resident, who was a drug dealer. CARMA thought it would be prudent if they steered her in my direction. I agreed to meet her.
You may have seen her before,” the CARMA member said, “Barb usually visits GPC on Saturdays. A little lady in a power chair. Be gentle with her.”
Next Saturday Barb appeared at my door. Barb in her high voice told me she hated seeing me here; she’ll do anything she can to help me; I can call her anytime; we’ll get you out. I assured her if there was anything I could think of that I needed I wouldn’t hesitate to ask.
When we were finished talking, the last thing she said to me was, “Whatever you do Paul, when you leave this place—never come back.”
From a very informed source I found out Barb’s story. Before Barb was imprisoned in GPC she had lived in Woodlands, the BC institution where people with disabilities were abused by government employees for 133 years. Barb lived in Woodlands for thirty years. When the government began shutting it down they moved Barb to GPC in 1978 instead of the community as they had promised.
In 1998, when CARMA started to work in GPC Barb showed up on the day they opened their office and told them she wanted out. And after a nearly two-year struggle, with Barb phoning the government everyday, CARMA and Barb together got her out of GPC and into an apartment with the support she needs. But that’s not why Barb is so remarkable.
What makes Barb so remarkable is what she did for her roommate Veronica. Veronica by all accounts was depressed, cried all the time, hardly ever left her room. Barb wanted to take Veronica with her out of GPC. People tried to discourage Barb from this because, in their opinion, Veronica was useless. Veronica herself didn’t want to leave GPC because she was scared.
Barb didn’t listen to all this pessimism and she brought Veronica with her. And once Veronica was out of the suffocating grip of GPC she flourished.
For nearly 50 years Barb had been ignored by a society that smugly declares itself as compassionate. Who would blame Barb if she cared only about herself? But the second CARMA showed up at GPC Barb recognized this as an opportunity to escape, to be free and to help someone else get free too.
Barb had the toughness to be ethical.
Diamonds are pieces of carbon, one of the most common elements in the universe, that have crystallized after being put under enormous, crushing pressure. The pressure of institutions had made Barb a diamond.
The finest diamond I’ve ever seen.
Paul Caune is the Executive Director of CIVIL RIGHTS NOW! Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://civilrightsnow.ca.