From institutional to community living: A history of developmental services in Ontario | Ministry of Community and Social Services (gov.on.ca)
In 1876, the Government of Ontario opened its first institution for people with a developmental disability just outside of Orillia on the shores of Lake Simcoe. By 1968, at the height of its operations, the facility had 2,600 residents.
The number of institutions and the number of people living in them continued to grow until the mid-1970s. By 1976, two years after the government passed the Developmental Services Act, Ontario operated 16 institutions, or facilities as they came to be called. They provided residential care to more than 10,000 people with a developmental disability.
The Developmental Services Act was a turning point in the evolution of Ontario's system of developmental services. It marked the beginning of the shift to a new way of providing services and supports to people with a developmental disability, one which focused on greater independence, social inclusion and personal choice. This shift culminated in 2009 when Ontario closed the doors to its last remaining facilities.
Spanning a timeframe of more than 100 years, this is the story of why the facilities were built and why they were closed. It's the story of how society's attitudes towards people with a developmental disability have changed over the years and how government policy and legislation have evolved in response.
Most of all, it's the story of the people who lived in Ontario's facilities and the men and women who worked there. We dedicate these pages to them.
Our story begins in the early 19th century. Institutionalization was an accepted part of society in North America and throughout Europe.
There were many kinds of institutions.
In Ontario, the earliest institutions — many were built before Confederation — were workhouses. Also called poorhouses or houses of refuge, these were places where destitute people could find shelter in exchange for work.
There were also institutions for orphans, unmarried mothers and the elderly.
Institutions for people with mental health issues were called asylums for the insane.
The latter half of the 19th century saw a new kind of institution being built. These were places where people with a range of intellectual disabilities, including people with a developmental disability, were sent to live. These institutions were known as asylums for idiots, lunatics, imbeciles, the feeble-minded and epileptics.
Why did Ontario begin building institutions specifically for people with a developmental disability in 1876? There were many reasons.
For one, well into the 19th century, jails were often being used to house destitute people with mental and developmental disabilities. There simply wasn't any other place for them to go. To understand why this happened, we have to look back to 1791 when the British Parliament enacted the Constitutional Act.
Another reason was the effect of the Industrial Revolution on society.
Still another reason was the eugenics movement, and the way society viewed people with a developmental disability.
Institutionalized care for people with a developmental disability peaked in Ontario around 1974. At that time, the government operated 16 institutions, in which more than 8,000 people lived.
By the 1960s, attitudes towards people with a developmental disability were starting to change. The "community living movement" was spreading across North America. The movement was started mainly by family members who dreamed of a better life for their sons and daughters living in institutions. At the same time, people with a developmental disability also began to advocate for their own rights to live as full citizens.
Advocates of the community living movement argued that people with disabilities - including those with a developmental disability - are citizens who have the right to participate in community life, regardless of the degree of their disability. They argued that with the right community services and supports, people with a developmental disability can live and participate in their own communities just like everyone else.
The Ontario government responded by funding more and more services and supports in the community. These programs included both group and individual living arrangements, as well as day programs such as sheltered workshops and life skills programs.
The shift from institutional to community supports continued to evolve considerably over the next four decades.
People were beginning to realize that it would be possible to create enough community programs and services to eventually replace institutions (or facilities, as they came to be called).
In 1974, the Ontario government passed the Developmental Services Act to set the stage for a new approach to services for people with a developmental disability.
Because the new approach focused on community services, as opposed to the original medical model of care, the government also transferred responsibility for services for people with a developmental disability from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Community and Social Services.
The government started to look at different living arrangements within the facilities themselves, such as moving residents to smaller units and apartments.
Between 1975 and 1986, Ontario witnessed a blossoming of community-based services and supports which enabled more and more people to live in the community. The number of people receiving community-based services grew from 4,600 to over 25,000.
During this time, the Ontario government:
• increased spending on community-based services from $10 million to $181 million
• closed five provincial-operated institutions, and
• reduced the size of several others.
In 1982 the government introduced the Special Services at Home program to help children with a physical or developmental disability live at home with their families. In 1990, the program was expanded to include adults with a developmental disability.
In 1987, the Ministry of Community and Social Services published "Challenges and Opportunities: Community Living for People with Developmental Handicaps". In this document, the government announced its plans to close Ontario's remaining facilities within 25 years (by 2012).
Between 1987 and 2004, Ontario closed another six facilities and helped over 6,000 people make the transition from an institution to community living.
By September 2004, the government was spending more than $1 billion a year on community-based services to help people with a developmental disability participate in community life.
On September 9th of that year, Ontario announced a $110 million plan to strengthen community supports for Ontarians with a developmental disability. It also launched a major review of the province's developmental services system. As an important part of this plan, the government announced the closure of the remaining three facilities for people with a developmental disability by March 31, 2009 (Huronia Regional Centre, Rideau Regional Centre and Southwestern Regional Centre).
On October 8, 2008, Ontario's Services and Supports to Promote the Social Inclusion of Persons with Developmental Disabilities Act, 2008, received Royal Assent. When it comes into force, it will replace the Developmental Services Act.
While the 1974 legislation was important for its time, Ontario's system of developmental services has changed since then. Today's system recognizes that:
• people with a developmental disability can live much more independently with the right supports, and
• individuals and families want more choice and control over the services and supports they receive.
The new legislation will give Ontario the framework it needs to continue to improve and sustain its system of developmental services over the long-term.
In March 2009, the Ontario government fulfilled its commitment made in 1987 to move from an institution-based system for people with a developmental disability to a community-based service system.
Nearly 7,000 adults with a developmental disability in Ontario have successfully transitioned to new homes in the community.
Homes have been found that better meet each person's needs based on thorough planning that includes the individuals, their families, facility staff, medical professionals and the community agencies.
Our story does not end here, however.
Ontario will continue to work with families and individuals, community agencies and service providers to truly include people with a developmental disability into the day-to-day life of our neighbourhoods and our communities.