Sixty years ago, a group of parents, frustrated with the educational system that excluded their handicapped children from regular school services, banded together and started a society: the Boundary Society for the Retarded.
Much like the name, the society has evolved over the decades. But its mission, as simple yet complex as it may be, has remained the same: inclusivity.
After an initial name change and subsequent amalgamation with the Semiahmoo House Association, the South Surrey-based organization headquartered at 15306 24 Ave. has been known since 1978 as the Semiahmoo House Society.
Chief executive officer Doug Tennant says the society can look at the past and shake its head. But, he added, as the community continues to evolve, perhaps 20 years down the line, advocates will flip through the history books and do the same.
Tennant and director of development Louise Tremblay invited Peace Arch News to their office Wednesday to share the history of the society, meet its members and talk about the future.
Tennant explained that there’s a lot of work left to do with respect to inclusivity, particularly when it comes to fair, affordable housing and employment opportunities.
He said the goal of their membership mirrors what non-disabled people want: affordable, safe accommodation; own their home; have intimate relationships; pay taxes; secure gainful employment and be active, contributing members of the community.
Tennant and Tremblay said there’s stereotypes and stigma attached to hiring someone with a disability, but that they don’t hold weight.
Tennant used Semiahmoo House Society front-desk associate Mark Yuen as a shining example.
Yuen explained to PAN, in great detail, what he does for the society – everything from answering the phones, handling mail and money, and acting as the first point of contact for the society.
Tennant said that working with someone like Yuen, who has mild autism, is a morale booster for the office – as demonstrated through the pair’s friendly banter Wednesday afternoon.
“What I would like to say about Mark, as an employee, he brings a professional work ethic to the front desk. Secondly, he gives back to the organization,” Tennant said.
When Yuen first started collecting a paycheque from the society, “one of the first things” he did was start donating money to the society’s personal development program.
Tennant said one of the greatest challenges with respect to encouraging inclusive employment is that there’s a lack of knowledge about the benefits of hiring someone with a disability.
“The benefit is that employees who have disabilities have been demonstrated to be much more loyal. They will stay in their job a lot longer. If you look at restaurants and other hospitality industries, the amount of money they have to put into recruitment and retention is monumental.”
Tennant said more companies are hiring people with disabilities, not out of charity, but because it can have a positive impact to the bottom line.
With a near-zero vacancy rate for rentals in the city, particularly when it comes to affordable apartments, Tennant said a number of disabled people live with their parents, regardless of how old they are.
But an exact number of how many are living with their parents, or even a ball-park guess, isn’t possible because the research, Tennant explained, hasn’t been done.
“One of the things that we’re working on right now is to try and get a grant to do in-depth research as to where people are living,” Tennant said.
The society, along with the Peninsula Estates Housing Society and the Semiahmoo Foundation, has directly helped relieve affordable housing issues for people with disabilities.
The trio of organizations, which when working together call themselves Uniti, built the 71-unit apartment building, Chorus (2350 153 St.), two years ago.
Units in the building are not limited to people with disabilities.
“It flips the power balance. It was built because of people with disabilities but then they invited the community in. It’s a reversal of what usually happens,” Tennant said.
Putting power into the hands of disabled people, particularly when it comes to addressing issues that directly affect them, is the way of the future, he added.
That mantra is carried on through the work done by the Self Advocates of Semiahmoo.
Self Advocates is a group of people who have disabilities, who are independent of Semiahmoo House Society. The Semiahmoo Foundation funds some staff to support the Self Advocates.
“One of the things that (the Self Advocates have) done and continue to do is they’re working in almost a quality assurance way for this organization. Every year… they will go throughout the organization and interview people we support to find out what’s working with what we’re doing,” Tennant said.
“I like it when they come to me and tell me there’s things we need to improve. That’s who we’re working for.”
Uniti is in talks with Surrey to build another apartment complex, using a similar model to Chorus.
“There’s no guarantee that it’s going to happen. We do have land,” Tennant added.
To conclude, Tennant said whatever a non-disabled person wants to achieve in life is, “we need to assume,” exactly what a disabled person wants.
“We always have to be aware that we’re not doing things perfectly and be open to change. As long as we’re guided by the people with disabilities who we support, then I think we’re going to end up on the right track.”