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“Peter Park interviewed by Patrick McDonagh,” From Institutions to Individuals: On Becoming Person-Centred, a new anthology

September 30, 2012

From Institutions to Individuals: On Becoming Person-Centred, is a new anthology of selected writings, conversations and interviews by, for and about people with intellectual disabilities and those who care about them.   Edited by Aaron Johannes, with Patrick McDonagh, Susan Stanfield and Jim Reynolds.

Included in the anthology are Julia Downs, W. C. Gaventa, Maria Glaze, Aaron Johannes, Michael Kendrick, Norman Kunc, David Pitonyak, Shelley Nessman, Jim Reynolds, Erin Sheldon,  Judith A. Snow, Tim Stainton, Susan Stanfield, Alison Taplay, Emma Van der Klift, and Paul Young.  This is gathering of a wide range of Canadian voices – self advocates, parents, professionals, spiritual leaders, service providers and consultants.

While there are many parts of this book that I’m proud of, in particular I have always thought two wonderful interviews by Patrick McDonagh, with Peter Park and Paul Young, two heroes of the People First movement in North America, deserved a wider audience.   From the anthology, this is part of the Peter Park interview.

Patrick: How did your association with People First begin?

Peter: I remember in Brantford, people wanted something other than the association, because the association said they would do things, but it might be ten years later …people wanted something that they owned, they controlled, and so I just used myself as an instrument. I didn’t know what I was doing but I started something. That was back in May, 1979.

Patrick: Where does your sense of justice come from?

Peter: I think it’s my own personal set of values, maybe it was something that was instilled in me when I was younger. My father was always that way too, and my older brothers. So I grew up in a household where you were conscious of those sort of things – although I wasn’t conscious of it. And I had a cousin who at the time, in the 40s and 50s, was a real pedal pusher. She travelled North America from New York City to Los Angeles at night, was an unescorted woman, would go to Jamaica, was in the Zeigfeild Follies, and was one of the survivors of the Titanic. That right there, I’ve never thought about it this way before, is where my social values come from.

I keep growing every day, I won’t stop learning things.  People like Richard [Ruston] for instance, will say “Oh, I’m learning from you, Peter,” but I’m learning from Richard. I’m never going to stop learning until I’m put in that hole six feet under. I just feel so positive that things are going to work out for the best.

Patrick: But it’s taken a lot of work to make them work out for the best?

Peter: The work in itself is rewarding. It’s not just you, it’s for us, for everyone. They don’t have to live the life that I had. Like being put in an institution for eighteen years, from 20 to 38. If anyone asks my age I’m fifty-nine. But take 18 years off that, and that’s my right age, as far as I’m concerned. Because those eighteen years were wasted, and I’m just starting to live. That’s the way I look at it, I’m only forty-one.

That’s part of history – I know it’s important, and I can’t forget it. I can’t change that. But I don’t concentrate on that. I concentrate on what I can change, and I can effect some change for the future, but I can’t do anything about the past.

Patrick: You are making sure other people don’t use those years.

Peter: That’s right. And maybe people wouldn’t be at the same stage they’re at now otherwise. It’s good just seeing other people…

Patrick: You’re optimistic for People First and the Rights movement?

Peter: Oh yes. I see this as going along the right way right now. It started with Martin Luther King, who started people thinking more about equality and rights. People First has taken it a step further they’re saying it’s for people with disabilities too. But we
used that for our model.

. . .

Patrick: It must be challenging to coordinate a group across such a large country.

Peter: Yes, it is very challenging. That’s what makes it so rewarding. You’ll say “okay, what challenge will I be facing today?” or “I’ve got to continue working on that challenge.” Well, like the name change. People are saying that’s over? Well, I’m saying “Hey, what’s next?” If you don’t keep watch on some of these more powerful people, they’re going to say “mentally retarded” again. We don’t want that, and we’ve made it quite clear.
. . .

Patrick: When did you first get to vote?

Peter: After I got out of institutions. I was still in a group home at that time. If it hadn’t been for myself …they said, “Oh, you’ve been enumerated with the association,” but I found out I had not been enumerated. So I made sure I was. I don’t know how I knew that you had to answer all these different questions, but I think that part of it was that I had lived at home, and had seen that happen with my mom and dad and brothers and sisters.

In the institution when I first asked about voting, I was told by a guy, “Peter, you have no rights.” I figured that for the 18 years I spent in the institution, because I was such a rebel, I was locked up in Dewar, the detention ward, for nine of those years. Mind you, you get locked up for fool things like refusing to take medication that the doctor said, “you are being used like a human guinea pig,” so we will refuse to take that medication. That would happen many times with me.

Patrick: Was there a community of people who resisted authorities in the institution?

Peter: There were quite a few people who would say, okay, we’ll take the soft side, and few of us who would say, “You guys are all wet.” And I was the loudest one to say “You’re all wet.” And I made no bones about where I stood. And I don’t know how I knew that. But I would say “Hey, I don’t agree with you on many things – or most things in fact, not many.” People First has taught me a lot about patience and listening. I think that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. Taking the time to listen. And by listening I mean not just giving an opinion right away, but thinking it through. People don’t give that respect to other people.

They think, because you are taking that time, “oh well, you’re hearing’s bad,” or something like that. So they shout at you. I don’t mean People First members. But it happens.
. . .
Peter: I don’t think it’s that high, but at least its there [on the agenda]. And we’ve got some friends, like Michael Bach, on the inclusion committee, so we’ve gone a step in the right direction. It may be small right now, but we get more powerful and more powerful as time goes on. People take time to change – it doesn’t come in a hurry. At least real change comes slowly. Change that doesn’t mean change comes in a heck of a hurry. I was told that I had no rights. I was told you’ll never get married, well today I’m happily married. I live in a place of my own, I have a job I enjoy doing. And yes we have, well, we call her our child, our cat, because we don’t have any children. But boy is she spoiled. My wife says “We’ve got to spoil something, we’ve got no kids.”

That’s the big void in my life, is the fact that we don’t have children. I would have liked children. But it’s just one of those things. At that time, I didn’t know. I wish I knew what People First has taught me back twenty-one years ago. However, I didn’t. Life goes on. Let’s look toward the future.

. . .

Patrick: Aren’t you like a parent of People First?

Peter: In my life, I wanted to become a minister. Now, my ministry is People First. The movement has come a long ways since I didn’t know what I was doing.

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