Bill MacArthur was raped and beaten as a child, and he saw horrific instances of other sexual, physical and emotional abuse during the four separate times he was sent to the former provincial lunatic asylum/hospital for the insane that became Woodlands School in New Westminster.
In a way he considers himself lucky: He lived to tell about it and advocate for disability rights.
On Sunday at the Burnaby Neighbourhood House community centre people gathered for the eighth annual Disability Day of Mourning, a day to honour people with disabilities who were murdered by their caretakers.
“(Woodland) wasn’t a school you could graduate from,” MacArthur, 60, said. “It was basically a prison.”
MacArthur was born premature and, as he put it, bounced off the walls as an infant and child. He witnessed children unable to have a bowel movement in a timely enough fashion have scalding water poured on their groins to encourage them to “loosen up.”
“I was fortunate, I never got the lobster treatment, but many others did.”
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), which tracks cases of abuse and death, has compiled a list of more than 1,300 reported murders of people with disabilities by relatives or caregivers over the last 39 years.
The annual day of mourning — also observed in Kamloops, across Canada and up to 40 cities around the world — was first held in 2012 in response to the death of a 22-year-old autistic man at the hands of his mother in California.
The long list of deaths recorded since includes a 77-year-old Minnesota woman with dementia shot by her husband, one of many murder-suicides; a 90-year-old Japanese woman murdered by her granddaughter, who stuffed a towel into her mouth until she suffocated; a 13-year-old South Carolina girl who was confined to a wheelchair deliberately left in a locked car until she died; a six-year-old California boy strangled by his mother and aunt; a 69-year-old South African woman who, when her husband’s attempt to suffocate her with a pillow failed, slit her throat.
Canada’s most famous such case is Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer who was convicted of second-degree murder in the 1993 death of his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had cerebral palsy.
Too often cases like this are considered mercy killings, that the victim is better off dead, Vivian Ly of the Vancouver chapter of Autistics United said.
“People with disabilities are twice as likely as non-disabled people to be the victims of violent crime,” she said. “Too often the media coverage focuses on sympathy for the murderer because they had to live with or care for a person with a disability.
“The message to the public is that our lives, not our deaths, are the tragedy.”
MacArthur added: “Everybody has something to offer society, I don’t care how disabled they are. They have the right to live beside us and work beside us and enjoy this thing we call life.”
Special focus was paid on Sunday to the death of Port Coquitlam Down syndrome victim Florence Girard, who starved to death in 2018 in the home of her paid caregiver. Astrid Charlotte Dahl of Coquitlam, in whose home Girard had lived for 10 years, is charged with criminal negligence causing death and with failure to perform a legal duty to provide necessaries.
The Kinsight Community Society of Coquitlam, a non-profit group that oversaw the home-sharing service, was charged with failure to perform a legal duty to provide necessities.
Court appearances are scheduled for March 9.