As a child, did you feel like the adults in your life were the ones making all of your decisions? Were you impatient to grow up so that you could drive a car, make money, and get married? For most of us, these frustrations fade away once we reach adulthood. But for too many people with developmental disabilities, the chance to experience the freedoms of adult life never comes. Due to discrimination and prejudice, individuals with developmental disabilities have a history of being treated like children, denied the right to make their own choices or reach their full potential, and even abused. People with developmental disabilities are three times less likely than non-disabled people to be employed (approximately 25 per cent of adults with developmental disabilities are employed, compared to 75 per cent of non-disabled adults)[i] but 10 times more likely than non-disabled people to be sexually assaulted.[ii] This post will explore the current situation of Canadians with developmental disabilities, the historical context of how we treat people with disabilities, the impacts of discrimination, and opportunities to take action.   

What’s It Like To Live With A Developmental Disability?  

Developmental disabilities are defined as being life-long conditions that emerge in childhood or adolescence, and can limit a person’s cognitive and adaptive functioning.[iii] In other words, a developmental disability affects an individual’s intellectual growth and maturation. Examples include Down Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. It is important to note that focusing on a person’s disability, or what they can’t do, means that we may lose sight of their many abilities, strengths, and contributions. People with developmental disabilities have much to offer to their communities, and have the right to be fully included in society. 

Although much has improved in the way we treat people with developmental disabilities, there is still a lot of work to be done. These days, many adults with developmental disabilities are given the opportunity to pursue an adult life by living in their own home, pursuing higher education, getting a job, and finding a romantic partner. However, for those who do not have access to inclusion- and rights-based services such as job coaching, independent living support, and community support programs, the chances of living a full and meaningful life tend to be lower. Data shows that more than 10,000 people with developmental disabilities continue to be shut in institutions,[iv] which segregate and exclude them from their communities.  

A Long History Of Exclusion 

One of Canada’s earliest policies involving people with developmental disabilities was institutionalization or the establishment of insane asylums. The first asylum in the country was built in Québec in 1845. Institutionalization was supposed to be a humane way to treat people who had been labeled as intellectually inferior, immoral, or diseased. However, these asylums were anything but humane; rather, they were places of isolation, neglect, and abuse.[v] The 1930s brought the rise of eugenics, an attempt to control human reproduction, so that only the most desirable genetic traits are passed on. The involuntary sterilization of Canadians with disabilities began around this time; during World War II, eugenics reached a new level of cruelty including killing people with disabilities in Nazi Germany. Since the 1950s, there has been a push to deinstitutionalize and to include people with developmental disabilities in our communities. There have been movements to pass legislation recognizing the rights of people with disabilities, to end employment discrimination, to ban forced sterilization, and to promote inclusion.[vi] A key part of this progress is the self-advocacy movement, in which people with developmental disabilities are speaking up for their own rights.[vii] 

The Devastating Cost Of Isolation 

In addition to the high rates of abuse and violence that we discussed earlier in this post, the exclusion experienced by people with developmental disabilities is deeply damaging. Being segregated from the non-disabled community can lead to extreme loneliness and serious mental health issues. A 2017 study by the Government of Canada found that while 70 per cent of household-dwelling Canadians aged 15 or older describe their mental health as “excellent” or “very good”, that rate drops to 17 per cent among people with developmental disabilities.[viii] We all have dreams for our future, and it can be devastating to be denied the opportunity to pursue one’s dreams in areas including education, employment, and romance. It is important to note that people can still experience the negative impacts of isolation even if they have access to support services; individuals are more likely to be safe in their communities if they have meaningful relationships with people who are not paid to support them (friends and family, for example, as opposed to staff). 

What You Can Do 

  • In your day-to-day life, you can help by respecting every person’s human dignity, and by treating adults with developmental disabilities as adults, not as children. One way to show this respect is to speak directly to individuals, rather than communicating through whoever may be accompanying or supporting them. 
  • It is important to know our local history; Kamloops was home to the Tranquille institution for people with developmental disabilities. To connect our local history with what happened elsewhere, you can watch the short documentary In the Shadow of Fairview, which tells the story of one institution in Oregon, USA. The documentary is available on YouTube 
  • The Kamloops Self-Advocate Newsletter is a local business that publishes monthly newsletters written by people with developmental disabilities; each issue is full of interesting articles and interviews. You can find the newsletter for free at this webpage, which is updated each month. 
  • Become a support worker. Get involved providing direct support to those who need it the most. And it is a great job while you study. There is a huge need for support workers right now and a shortage of these contributes to worsened outcomes for those with developmental disabilities. Many of these positions do not require additional education. Those which do are very accessible as there are many programs that are short in length and are funded (I.e. free!). 

For more information contact:    

Shantelle Bishop 

Vice President Equity   

Dylan Robinson   

Equity Coordinator   


[i] Institute for Research and Development on Inclusion and Society. (2014). Employment of people with developmental disabilities in Canada: Six key elements for an inclusive labour market. 

[ii] The National Benefit Authority Corporation. (2014, August 19). Abuse in Canada’s disability community. 

[iii] Ontario Developmental Services. (n.d.). Understanding developmental disabilities. Developmental Services Human Resource Strategy. 

[iv] Council of Canadians with Disabilities. (n.d.). Building an inclusive and accessible Canada: Supporting people with disabilities. 

[v] Ontario Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Policy on preventing discrimination based on mental health disabilities and addictions, Appendix A: Historical context. 

[vi] Inclusion Canada. (2019). People with disabilities are significant historical events. 

[vii] American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, & The Arc of the United States. (2020). Self-advocacy and leadership.,1975%20federal%20legislation%20now%20known%20as…%20More%20. 

[viii] Public Health Agency of Canada. (2017, March 29). Infographic: Developmental disabilities or disorders in Canada – Highlights from the 2017 Canadian survey on disability.