Many disabled people are segregated from society through institutions, nursing homes and psych facilities. While this was far more common in the past, there is still a significant portion of the disabled population that is kept under lock and key.

There are a number of different kinds of institutions:

Training schools and juvenile facilities:

One of the most extreme examples of a juvenile institution is the Alberta Provincial Training School. The court found in Muir v. Alberta that Lelani Muir was:

improperly detained…The particular type of confinement of which Ms Muir was a victim resulted in many travesties to her young person: loss of liberty, loss of reputation, humiliation and disgrace, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, loss of normal developmental experiences, loss of civil rights, loss of contact with family and friends, subjection to institutional discipline.

Not only was Ms Muir unlawfully and unethically sterilized, she was subject to countless deprivations and abuses while attending the school. The Provincial Training School, which spearheaded hundreds of sterilizations of its inmates, also abused many of the people there in other ways. Resident-inmates were drugged, beaten, straight-jacketed or put in solitary confinement. According to the Court, Leilani Muir was also forced to eat mush and cleanup after others who were more seriously disabled, including changing the diapers of adults. Residents were also experimented on. At least 15 boys with Down’s Syndrome had had their right testicle removed. The Doctor in charge of the school was running experiments on the testicular tissue.

The abuses at the Alberta Provincial Training School occurred decades ago but there schools that not only operate today but also advertise their abuses.

Psych Institutions
Psychiatric facilities are rumored to be breeding grounds for human experimentation. During the 1950s and 1960s, experiments were preformed on about 100 people at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montreal, Quebec. There, according to Don Weitz and Bonnie Burstow in Shrink Resistant: the struggle against psychiatry in Canada, they “were forcibly subjected to an unprecedented combination of psychiatric tortures; regressive electroshock, massive drugging, sensory isolation, prolonged sleep therapy and psychic driving”.

Electro-shock or ECT is one of the most common experiments in psych facilities. Burstow and Weitz state that “[a]fter 50 years of research and practice, the shock doctors tell us they don’t know why zapping a person with electricity ‘works’. They lay no claim to knowledge at all.”

While abuses are extensive in psych facilities, it is far more common for inmates/patients/residents/prisoners to experience more subtle and passive forms of abuse. These abuses can include threats; destruction of property; the prohibition of actions that are natural and normal such as asking questions, being restless, or expressing one’s sexuality; name calling; and, countless other forms of demoralizing and dehumanizing treatment.


While institutions are still far too prevalent in our society and many people who would like to be, and could be, living independently are hindered from doing so as a result of government policy, there have been shifts towards deinstitutionalization in the past decades.

Recognizing the financial expense of keeping people in institutions and, using the outcry from inmate-patients, family, friends and the community over the treatment of disabled people, the government did begin to transition people into out of institutions in the mid 1950’s and this became a large scale endeavor in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

This is from a 1977 US President’s Committee on Mental Retardation report:

The current movement to decrease the number of retarded persons in institutions and to increase the number resident in the community – “deinstitutionalization” – has been promoted on both humanitarian and economic grounds. While there is little disagreement that the traditional institutional patterns of custodial care have been dehumanizing, there is disagreement on the question of economy and the comparative quality of community services presently available.

However, as neo-liberalism and fiscal conservatism swept Canada and the United States, it became obvious that money could indeed be saved if institutions were closed. The way to save money was simple: just close beds in institutions, promise to offer services in the community and don’t deliver on those promises.

The Canadian Senate even said that: “In many cases, deinstitutionalization has been undertaken without the necessary community supports being in place”.

This was because, as Dr. Richard O’Reilly put it: “The solution for fiscal conservatives was simple: as individuals with mental illness don’t vote or complain effectively, they were discharged and hospitals were closed”

When the institution doors swung open, many of inmates adjusted well to their new found freedom and the outside world. Sadly, though, some group homes were not really much different from larger institutions. Often they were geographically isolated in areas far away from other disabled communities or services and institutional mentalities and abuses from staff could still occurred.

And, some people were given no treatment at all. Some people, like a number of people depicted in Pat Capponi’s Upstairs In The Crazy House, she depicts the lives of several people who found that their treatment post deinstitutionalization was far less humane that their institutional treatment. When Capponi was released, she was sent to a private group home in Parkdale, Toronto. There she was subject to living in a freezing cold house with only $18 a month to live on after her room and board were paid. Caponi also describes the situation of a man who spent seventeen years in a psych facility. During the deinstitutionalization period, he was handed “a bus ticket and an address” to the same private group home and sent out the door.

As the neo-liberal agenda continued, there were even more cuts, particularly to social assistance, health care and social housing. In the United States one quarter of welfare recipients ceased getting assistance in the period between 1993 and 1997. In Canada, in 2003 41.3% fewer people were receiving welfare than ten years previously. Beyond people being kicked off of assistance, rates were frozen or slashed in many areas as well. For example, in Ontario, welfare rates were cut by 21.6% in 1995 (a loss of 1/5th of many people’s income) and disability rates were frozen in 1993 which, with inflation, amounted to about a 2% cut a year.

Public funding cuts to health care saw US expenditures on mental health services decrease two-thirds from what it had been 40 years previously. Similar cuts took place in Canada.

While many disabled people, were affected by these cuts, psychiatrized people and psych survivors were the hardest hit. Much of the increases in poverty and homelessness were on their backs. Indeed, during 1980s and 1990s, there was a “visible increase in homelessness” in the US and Canada. By 1999 approximately one third of all homeless people in Toronto were psych survivors or psychiatrized people (this statistic is slightly problematic as living on the streets can and does lead to mental health issues and psychiatrization so it is difficult to say that the lack of funding of community supports led to the increase in homelessness or if low social assistance and lack of accessible housing led to homelessness which then led to psychiatrization or mental health issues).

Deinstitutionalization should have led to greater inclusion, participation and autonomy, but because it was never done with or for the people who were deinstitutionalization it led to many people’s lives getting no better, if not worse.

With incredible amounts of poverty, inadequate housing, and no supports, many people, once they were deinstitutionalized, ended up in prison because the state wanted to control them but didn’t want to put the money into social assistance, housing and community care.

Prisons And The Reinstitutionalization of Disabled People

“At any given moment, 40 percent of all Americans with serious mental illness are estimated to be in jail or prison, comprising from 10 to 30 percent of all inmates” ~ Jane Stewart and Marta Russell

Generally, there is a disproportionate number of disabled people in the prison population. In Canada, nearly 30% or women inmates and 17% of male inmates have Hepatitis C and almost 4% and 2%, respectively, are HIV positive. 30% of prisoners in the US have at least some hearing loss. In all, there is an unknown number of physically disabled and intellectually disabled people in prisons. Some estimates put the population of intellectually disabled people in prisons at as high as 9.5% and in the juvenile population learning disabilities are estimated at 55%.

There are 3 reasons why there are so many disabled people in prisons.

Poverty and Lack of Supports
Many disabled people live in poverty and make wages that are far lower than non-disabled people or scrape by on shamefully low social assistance rates. This coupled with the criminalization of a number of behaviours associated with “mental illness” means that many disabled people find themselves committing ‘crimes’ like steeling food, committing other acts of minor theft, loitering, trespassing, doing sex work and selling drugs, among other things, to make money.

Depending where people live, they could to jail for many, if not all of these ‘offenses’ and for some of them, they could be locked up for years.

Also, poverty means that once someone is arrested, they cannot afford a good lawyer so they have a publicly funded lawyer with a high caseload and very little time.

Disablism in the Judicial System

Lawyers are less likely to spend the amount of time that is actually needed to interview defendants with intellectual disabilities.

The courts have been found to have a tenancy to find that a defendant with an intellectual disability is competent to stand trial when the defendant isn’t because the incompetence is seen as permanent. However, the opposite is true in the case for psychiatrized people because that is often seen to be temporary. But this means that there are intellectually disabled people who are on trial who do not understand what is going on and/or instruct their lawyers.

Further, many judges are known to be racist and sexist and it is fair to assume that there are many judges who are disablist and who actively discriminate against disabled defendants.

Disblism in the Prison Systems
When disabled people go to jail, they are punished twice: once for the crime they were convicted of and once for being disabled.

Stairs and physical access: this could make parts of the prison, which could include the yard, visiting areas, showers, medical facilities, programs, and, likely, half of the beds in the institution unavailable to many physically disabled inmates. Loss of access to these and other areas could make their time harder or compromise their health.

ASL and TTY: many programs are inaccessible and day-to-day functioning in prison very difficult due to lack of intrepreters. Further, deaf inmates can be cut-off from the outside world even more if prison telephones do not necessarily provide TTY or TDD services.

Personal support workers: attendant care is largely unavailable to disabled inmates who need it. Guards are left to do basic support tasks, which they aren’t trained to do. Some inmates go without meals and are not allowed to use the toilet.

Other prisoners: Disabled prisoners may experience overt disablism. They also may have a difficult time defending themselves because of their disabilities.

Personal aid devices: mobility and assistive devices are often taken away from people when they are arrested (this includes prosthetics, canes, crutches, braces, etc.) and it can take a long time, and even a court hearing to get them back. Also if something breaks, it can be difficult or impossible to get it repaired or replaced.

Medical treatment: prisons in Canada and the United States are required to provide a basic level of medical care, but this is not always the case. In the Canadian federal prison system, 52% of it’s health care facilities failed to be accredited in 2006 because they did not meet basic requirements. Procedural decisions – like choosing to make medication rounds 3 times a day (when many people need medications 4 times a day, delivering sleeping pills at 5pm or choosing not to test diabetic prisoners’ insulin can have major, even deadly, impacts on people’s lives.

Medical wards: disabled inmates may also be isolated in medical wards or units specifically for the sick and disabled which can their access to programs and recreational facilities.

Segregation units: these are sometimes used to isolate people with allergies or people with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues who prison officials don’t know how to deal with.

Maximum security: some people, in some areas, are automatically put in maximum security because of their disabilities. For instance, rather than run programs for people with intellectual disabilities at every security level, the system can save money by putting everyone with an intellectual disability into maximum security which means that there are people who would otherwise be at minimum security who are forced to be in maximum security.

All of these things work to inhibit disabled prisoners’ ability to participate in programs. Prison programs could include high school or college courses, training programs, addiction recovery programs or anything else made available to inmates by administration or outside agencies. Prison programming can help pass the time inside, obtain parole and secure employment upon release.

If you do not participate in prison programming it is much harder to show the parole board that you can take on responsibility and that you deserve to be let out of prison.

Disabled people do harder time, get less out of their time and do more time.

So called deisntitutionalization was not about deinstitutionalization whatsoever, it was about moving people from more expensive and more humane institutions to the streets and then to prisons. People left institutions which were designed like prisons to go to prisons which are increasingly looking like institutions because of who is ending up there.

In-text links in this post::

Muir v. Alberta

Don Weitz

Bonnie Burstow

Shrink Resistant: the Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada

Pat Capponi

Upstairs In The Crazy House


Stewart and Russell article