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Being Indian And Handicapped

Everett Soop

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      APRIL 1988      p13  
To be handicapped and to be native means to be doubly pitted against the whole Canadian establishment. One has only to glance at the struggling native population in nearby towns and cities to realize that native people do not have the skills and the natural "know howness" for coping in an urban environment. Compound this plight with a disability, physical or mental, and the result is awesome - human misery and hopelessness that takes more than a welfare cheque to alleviate.

Although we all know that attitudes are the root of just about any problem dealing with the human condition, it is not the intent of this report to investigate or to go too deeply into the why and the wherefore of such attitudes. Suffice it to say, however, that we only have a native problem because the rest of the country had an attitude problem. That point of view has permeated the whole bureaucratic structure when dealing with natives. Just about every agency and organization that deals out some kind of service to natives, and I may add these include native-run ones also, do exactly that - they deal out the service or the financial aid with the efficiency and abruptness of an auctioneer at a cattle sale. If you do not know the auctioneer's lingo, you are in trouble if you are there to buy a cow. Personally, I know of many Indians who do not evey try their luck in the auction markets of our cities. They cling like parasites to an existing family who are struggling to make it through the maze of social service appointments, welfare cheque intervals, food banks and Salvation Army handouts.

Now, take a native person with even a relatively minor handicap trying to make it by using the existing services in a nearby town or city. First of all, more than likely, if the person is over 18 years old, he or she has already had a background of living on a reserve which, by the way, is not the same as being a Canadian citizen and living as a farmer or rancher, or living on an acreage. Living on a reserve is exactly what it states. One lives on a reserve where the underlying reality is that somehow, for some reason, you are owned by the federal government.

In spite of this however, there is something comforting in being taken care of, when all of a sudden you are pitted against loneliness, culture shock and depression. Therefore, in the event that a group of other natives, whether they be family or friends, should descend upon this poor unfortunate, who had so luckily managed to get a half-decent flat or apartment and some food. What does he or she do? Welcomes them, of course. Anything is better than that hideous feeling of isolation. We all know the rest of the story. Our tenant is kicked out, goes back to the reserve where there are no services. I know of many Indians who have gone this way not just once - but several times, desperately trying to make it.

What about the disabled children who are forced (and I mean this literally as well as figuratively) to take up residences in strange homes leaving their parents, just so they can go to deaf or blind school. They go away, learn a sign language, only to come back to their families who cannot understand them. How many Canadian parents would protest strongly if they had to send their children hundreds of miles from home to live among strangers with a different language and different customs.

Let me say this: for every disability there are a multitude of problems to go along with it. It

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Being Indian And Handicapped

Everett Soop

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      APRIL 1988      p14  
staggers the imagination. "What is happening", one is constantly being asked. Just let me say this. This is exactly what is being done. This is eternal writing. My heart is sick over it all.

Even as I write now, my hands shake at the thoughts of so many stacks and stacks of paper and proposals that sit in politicians' offices. I am tired of hearing their endless speeches and their demands that yet another task force, or another symposium on the native disabled being set up. I am growing weary of plodding through the snow drifts piled up by bureaucrats.

To make matters worse, there is the old problem of federal versus provincial responsibility, and if that doesn't create a dilemma we also have band councils whose concern for the handicapped is crass indifference.

Having started up a day program for the mentally handicapped in our reserve with a handibus, a building with accessibility, renovations and many eager clients attending daily, you can imagine our disappointment when all our concerted efforts were defeated by inertia and complete indifferences on the part of the whole darn system. Our building was taken away, the handibus sits in a garage lot, not to mention many disappointed clients, as well as their families. It was a beginning from which many future plans could take off. We had a dream of unlimited services branching from that one initial step. We wrote letters, put together proposals, knocked on doors, attended meetings, made phone calls, approached just about everyone who could possibly help us and it was all to no avail. The whole crux of the matter was that we needed the support of certain politicians who were simply not interested. I began to wonder if maybe our disabled all became alcoholics, would something be done for them? It was becoming increasingly more evident to me that the only people who get any kind of notice are the alcoholics or those involved in sports. But alas, a handicapped alcoholic I decided, would only end up in an asylum.

The disabled only started to receive some recognition for government programs after the declaration, "Year of the Disabled", and Rick Hanson's Round the World Tour. Indians in Canada started to organize and discovered in the '60s that funds were available for all sorts of organizations. Some important Native Organizations are still not qualifying for government monies because of the political criteria deliberately set as a stumbling block. Along comes the native Handicapped Groups with their proposals. Who is ready to listen? Not too many people.

The real beef of the native handicapped is that there are so many experts, professionals and concerned government people that are ready to compile documents of good words. Anyone can go to the government and find very well written programs for the disabled. Some of these fancy worded programs for the disabled will never reach the native handicapped because of the political football game. Since the native handicapped is at the bottom of the totem pole in society he is not even in the game, he is just kicked aside. It is not so bad that the native handicapped cannot be considered for the federal and provincial football game, but has the obstacle to hurdle Indian politics.

Trudeau brought the constitution home so that all Canadians will have equal rights, then I ask what happens to the rights of the native handicapped? Any government dogooder can in an instant, spell out, a long-winded philosophy of a handicapped, "Everyone has a right to a lifestyle of their choice which provides them with opportunities to develop their potential and demonstrate their capabilities in the least restrictive environment possible respective of their individual rights and responsibilities in society." Mr. Indian politician equally makes a grand statement. "I will continue to fight for justice and equality for the native handicapped." How far have we advanced from the Greek and

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Being Indian And Handicapped

Everett Soop

SASKATCHEWAN INDIAN      APRIL 1988      p15  
Roman eras? "Centuries later in Rome, the disabled did not necessarily fare much better. The Romans disposed of "some deformed and unwanted children ... in sewers located, ironically, outside the Temple of Mercy."

Natives are great believers in the Happy Hunting Grounds and life after death and the preparation stage. How many natives have ever stopped to think what they would do should they become disabled? It takes time to adjust and to cope with a disability not to mention the endless list of resources, financial aids, recreational needs, counselling and physical aids to daily living.

As the government bureaucrat would say, "There are many words to address the purpose, the objectives, the principles, beliefs and values of the handicapped." For once, instead of talking and writing about the native handicapped, how about talking to him directly, so that he may feel that he still has some dignity in life.

National Access Awareness Week, May 29 to June 4 is a chance to make Canada the best place in the world for disabled persons to live. Working together, the Department of the Secretary of State and a committee of national associations are planning this week in the late spring of 1988 as an opportunity for communities across Canada to celebrate, assess, plan and to set goals. Once again the native handicapped are left out in the field because no one is there to give direction.