Disability in Kawartha Lakes: A century of raising awareness
Just in Time local history series
Ian McKechnie is a graduate of Trent University and a lifelong resident of Lindsay. He presently works as a freelance writer and researcher, and has been writing for the The Advocate since 2017 on issues of cultural and historical significance.
In 1900, a letter from Samuel Suddaby, clerk of Somerville Township, crossed the desk of George Lytle, publisher of the Lindsay Watchman-Warder. A plebiscite on whether to build a house of refuge in Victoria County was scheduled to take place the following year, and Lytle was curious about how many residents from each township might enter the institution should one be built (which it was, in 1905). Among those in the Burnt River area who “would be much better in a House of Refuge,” Suddaby wrote, was a man with a disability whom “we can’t find anyone to keep willingly.” This unnamed man, he noted, “is now with some relatives who want to get rid of him, and it costs us $54.75 to keep him.”
Individuals with physical and cognitive exceptionalities were for far too long seen as invisible. They were at best second-class citizens, and, as suggested in Suddaby’s letter, considered a financial burden on society. Fortunately, much has been done over the years to raise awareness about the rights of those living with a disability, and to make our community more inclusive and accessible to all.
The horrific injuries incurred by those serving in the First World War brought disability awareness into the Canadian consciousness in a dramatic way, and the Great War Veterans’ Association, later called the Royal Canadian Legion, was established in part to support the needs of these individuals. Children and youth living with disabilities in Victoria County did not receive as much publicity between the wars — but nor were they as invisible as they might have been a generation before, when George Lytle was making inquiries about what sort of people should be institutionalized.
The Lindsay Rotary Club, in particular, was instrumental in advocating for their welfare through the 1930s. Fundraising efforts were undertaken in support of children with disabilities and Rotarians Charles Ferguson and Dan McQuarrie were known to drive children to Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto for treatment.
Other early efforts to support individuals with disabilities were more informal. In 1937, Ivor Jakeman, a 23-year-old Bethany resident who suffered from distorted limbs as a result of infantile paralysis, was supported by Harvey Ginn, the local barber, in developing a market garden. “Is he discouraged?” asked the Lindsay Daily Post of Jakeman. “No, not he. He is and will be game to the very last to make a place for himself in this huge unrelenting world.”
More advances took place during the 1950s. The Kawartha White Cane Club was formed in 1952 to support those living with vision impairment. In September 1960, a group of Lindsay-area parents joined forces to open a school for children with special needs. The organization they founded ultimately became the Victoria County Association for Community Living in 1988, and was instrumental in making Grace King’s family feel welcome in Lindsay when they relocated to the area in 1974. King’s daughter, Rochelle, had been diagnosed with Prader-Willi syndrome (a genetic disorder causing weak muscles and slow development), and would go on to benefit from the many services offered by the VCACL.
King’s experience as a mother of a child with a disability led her to become an advocate, and she recalls working alongside others such as the late Bill Huskinson and the late Ron Kennedy in blazing new trails. “Over the years the labels were dropped and those with different abilities had opportunities they were never afforded in the past,” says King. “Ron Kennedy,” she remembers “was a gifted gentleman who happened to have a physical disability caused by cerebral palsy. He was a speaker, advocate, and Scoutmaster — something no person of disabilities was supposed to do — and he offered encouragement in raising the bar.”
By the 1970s and 1980s, questions of accessibility had entered public discourse. Over the summer of 1980, Carolyn Van Alstyne co-ordinated a project for the Victoria County Social Planning Council that saw public buildings, elevators, entranceways, parking spaces and washrooms across the municipality studied to ascertain whether they were fully accessible. “The intention,” said the introduction to An Accessibility Guidebook of Lindsay and District, “is not so much to expose physical barriers as to remove uncertainties that might present anxiety barriers to those with mobility problems.”
Removing barriers also means reducing the distance one must travel to access services. Five Counties Children’s Centre, established in Peterborough in 1975 with the financial assistance of the Lindsay Rotary Club, began providing services to children with physical, neurological and communicative challenges living in the Lindsay area, in October of 1982.
“I have been privileged to work in the Lindsay community for the past 40 years,” says Darlene Callan, director of clinical services for Five Counties. “It really does take a village to raise a child, and we have learned over the years that children are born with differing abilities (rather than disabilities), and they require all services to work together to provide them with the best possible chance at building those abilities for life.”