— Extraordinary Neighbours —

The Human Touch

A human rights advocate finds dignity for intellectually disabled people in Edmonton’s core neighbourhoods

nicola jon b&w

Neighborhood Bridges founder Nicola Fairbrother with Jon Headley (and one of his two pet snakes).

Against the backdrop of a brightly painted wall and colourful bouquet, Nicola Fairbrother doesn’t appear to fit in in her own office. Dressed in all black—from her shoes to her horn-rimmed glasses—it’s easier to see in her the former punk-rock road manager than the current founder of a social services agency. But its her non-conformism that makes Neighborhood Bridges a radical and pioneering agency for intellectually disabled people.

“I wanted to scorch the earth and do something big,” says Fairbrother, a central Edmonton resident who founded the organization in 2007, which is now in an office behind Oliver Square. She’s doing it by ignoring the narrative that people with disabilities are a societal burden, along with a glossary of terms she believes has bred institutional inequality. Within these walls, “support workers” are “human rights workers,” and the organization is a “community.”

Together—Fairbrother, co-founder Joanna Brown, 100 advocators and advocatees, their innumerable roommates, friends and families—are all “community members.” Once equality is established in language, she says, it’s established in the homes where these people with intellectual disabilities live.

But this “community” is more than semantics. Its office and nearly all 18 homes it manages are within Oliver, Queen Mary Park and Westmount.

A decade ago, Fairbrother teamed with Brown to find geographic areas for their organization, based on a series of “human indicators” necessary for community development: housing costs, vacancies, employment opportunities, transit routes, parks, community leagues. Together, all of these support people with intellectual disabilities to be fully accepted as citizens, live autonomously and develop relationships that could alleviate some of the symptoms of oppression that they endure.

These three core neighbourhoods had what’s necessary to help mitigate poverty and social isolation, according to Brown. The amenities were proximal and landlords more than willing to rent to people with disabilities. A priest openly embraced and supported their vision and many businesses showed diverse hiring practices, including the Oliver Community League Hall, which for years hired a custodian from its community. “Many people in these three central neighbourhoods were really excited to team up with us and help make this community a healthy one,” says Brown.

By integrating its offices and members into our neighbourhood, the organization wants everyone to reflect on what it means to celebrate all human variation, to embrace and accept the characteristics of disability, limitations included, instead of treating these characteristics as “a medical problem to solve or a moral problem to manage,” says Fairbrother, who recently directed a documentary on controlled breeding called Surviving Eugenics.

Though we no longer genetically engineer disabilities out of our communities, Fairbrother sees social isolation, lack of personal will and mistreatment as another form of eugenics.

Growing up with her father in South Africa during the Apartheid era, her earliest notions of the world was an unjust place. “At a young age, I saw countless human rights violations and a general disregard for the human form,” she says, grimacing. She turns to a wall covered sporadically with portrait photography. “And here I was living the life of the white privileged; we had servants and all that.”

She was a teenager by the time they moved to Edmonton in 1986. Fairbrother best describes those years as “unbridled chaos and nihilism,” which was channeled into road managing punk bands and spreading angry anthems of Generation X across Canada. “If your next question is, did my general sense of mid-1980s’ nuclear apocalypse disenfranchisement affect the work I do?” she asks. “Then yes, it certainly did.” Her smile widens. “I’m a pissed off kid of the nuclear age.”

When she realized her anger could be better placed, she turned to human services, varying from social to advocacy work. Often times, she grew frustrated with colleagues and consultants, whom she says recognized the need for significant changes to their practises but didn’t act on it. They were ethical, fair-minded, well-intentioned people, she says, but unless their practises were more radical the lives of the people for whom they advocated wouldn’t be greatly improved. More disheartening was the idea that she shouldn’t have personal relationships with clients, and that she—the social worker—was in control of their life choices.

She started researching philosophers and critical thinkers like James C. Scott, who studied oppressed populations in Southeast Asia, and looked to early disability activists who fought for human rights. She came away realizing that disability wasn’t the problem. It was poverty.

Most people living independently with intellectual disabilities make well below $27,300, Canada’s “unofficial poverty line” for single people. Unemployment sits around 70 per cent. That’s not because they can’t work, says Fairbrother, but because of a cultural narrative that “these people are to be taken care of, and so they’re surrounded with paid support instead of authentic relationships.”

Eight years later, the agency is housing people that medical professionals never imagined would be living out in the community. People deemed too sick or too unstable even for group homes now live autonomous lives, gaining employment at community leagues, local businesses like Studio Bloom on 124 St. and meaningful volunteerism like helping build Westmount’s community garden.“The notion that people with disabilities are a burden is a huge problem for us.”

Fairbrother glances at her pinging cellphone and smiles. Jon Headley, someone she advocates for, has texted to say he’s on his way to the office. About an hour later, she hears a loud bang outside. “Oh, Jon must be here,” she says, laughing.

Headley enters smiling and apologetic. He’s still getting used to his new motorized wheelchair, but it’s maybe one of the smaller changes to his life since  being referred to Neighborhood Bridges in 2012. “I get to make my own choices,” he says, “and I’m still getting used to the fact that I’m able to control my life now.”

Past organizations assisting Headley frowned upon the client-worker relationships, but that’s key to the premise of Neighborhood Bridges. Most agencies will house several disabled people in a group home with one or two support staff; Bridges’ community members each have personally dedicated advocates and live with non-intellectually disabled roommates contracted by the agency to provide additional support as needed. Headley feels especially lucky because one of his roommates isn’t just a close friend, but a chef. Tonight, he’s more than comfortable inviting Fairbrother over for dinner because they also think of each other as friends.

Headley was drawn by the organization’s rejection of traditional values, like group housing, and how it encourages people to truly become active members of the broader community. For Headley, it’s playing on an organized wheelchair soccer team in Boyle McCauley and becoming a member of the Self Advocacy Federation for disability pride. “They treat me like a person,” he says about Neighborhood Bridges, “not just a client.”

Over time, the founders hope that other communities will see their own versions of Neighborhood Bridges, and that they’ll be a part of helping them take root. “My only hope is they don’t look exactly like us,” says Fairbrother. “We are the redheaded step-child and in many ways the first of our kind. Social change starts with the agitators and I hope we’ve created a foundation for other organizations to adopt and evolve.”

Are you a property owner willing to offer long-term leases to Neighborhood Bridges members? Does your business have diverse hiring practises and an interest in mitigating poverty in the disability community? The organization embraces local partnerships. Get in touch at 780-758-2815 or mail@neighborhoodbridges.ca.

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