Through the Years with Anni
Written by Alex Gonzalez

An interview with long-time DDRC employee, Anni Nielsen
By Rebecca Larder

Anni Nielsen has been a committed DDRC employee for the past 30 years. She has worked in a number of roles over the course of her time here, from a frontline employee to a manager, but she is currently a Caseload Coordinator managing the administrative funding processes that support our clients’ service.   Anni is last year’s winner of the everyone belongs™ Inclusion Award and is a leader and mentor within the DDRC community. I caught up with Anni to learn a bit more about the DDRC’s 60 years of service from her perspective.

Connection: How did you start at the DDRC?Anni-1

Anni: When I was 19, I got a job out of high school at an institution for people with developmental disabilities.

I grew up in a rural community where everyone belonged and everyone was included. Everyone did what they were able to do, so I never knew that there was any exclusion. When I got a bit older and I moved to the city, I started to see how people with disabilities were treated. I came to understand that not everyone was included in the community. My sister was a nurse at an institution for people with developmental disabilities and she said, “If you feel that strongly about these issues, why don’t you come here and work?” so I did. I worked there for two years.

In those days the institution housed 5,000 people. There was an assumption that people with disabilities were sick, which of course is not the case. There were locked doors and we had this huge ring of keys…We had to wear uniforms. So right away it was a clinical atmosphere. There was a ward nurse. People were in “jail” for nothing they had done. For me, the experience was a real eye-opener. And as a 19 year old, you have ideals, you think that you can help change things, but that wasn’t the case there.

It was a huge culture shock. I worked in a unit with people that had very high behavioural issues and significant disabilities. Many people developed “behaviours” because there was nothing to do. They had these big day rooms and there were chairs around the edges and people would just sit there. There would be a TV up in the corner with a cage in front of it so that no one could change the channels, and most of the time there was just snow on it, or cartoons or something stupid. There was a box in the corner with old broken toys. These are the things that stick in my head. At the time I felt overwhelmed and thought, “this is so wrong!”

At that time, if a child was born that the doctors believed had some sort of disability, often the doctor would advise the family to institutionalize them right away.

C: Did they have facilities for adults and children at this institution?

A: There were children that were “jailed” right from birth. I use the term jailed, I believe that it was like that, being locked up.

C: Did the parents have a choice?

A: Sure they had a choice, but they trusted medical personnel, and they really didn’t have the experience. They didn’t have the supports.

C: And it is because of people like Christine Meikle and Emily Follensbee that there now are supports for people with developmental disabilities and their families?

A: Absolutely.

Over the years there has been a big push, from people like our founders and other families to deinstitutionalize. And a lot of people were moved out to live with supports in the community.

C: You met both our founders, Christine Meikle and Emily Follensbee, what were they like?

A: I feel so fortunate to have known those people. You’ve probably heard about the kitchen school. Both women were parents of children who had developmental disabilities who were not accepted into the regular school system, and they decided that their children were going to be educated just like anyone else. So they started holding classes in the kitchen, and that’s how the agency began way back in 1952.

I love that story. And I think that we at the DDRC are very fortunate to have that history. That we were started by family, grass roots I guess you would call it.

Both Christine Meikle and Emily Follensbee were visionaries. Even the last time I saw Christine Meikle, she was a small, very old woman, but she was sharp as a tack. She was no shrinking violet. When she would go to the AGMs she would be there and she would be speaking up, “this is not right,” “this needs to change.” She attended basically to her last days. Both women stayed very involved.

C: After a while working at the institution, had you reached a point where you couldn’t stand it anymore?

A: Well, I kept trying to speak up, and as a 19 year old, you really weren’t allowed to do that. I really wasn’t popular, but I knew in my heart that this wasn’t right and changes needed to be made. So after a couple of years, I decided “I can’t do it, nothing’s going to happen,” and I went and travelled… I got married.

In my thirties I kind of came back… I decided, “I think it’s time, hopefully things have changed”. So I went to school at Mount Royal and came to the DDRC as a practicum student. At the DDRC I saw that many of the people that had been living and working at the institution where I had worked before had come out. That was amazing! We still support some people that had lived there. But to meet them here, and look at where they came from and what they were doing in the real world was amazing.

Anni-2C: What was the DDRC like at that time?

A: We had a number of sheltered workshops and people were supported there based on their skill level or the extent of their support needs. At Advance Industries (one of the workshops) we had a number of departments where people could gain a variety of skills. It was real work because Advance Industries had contracts with a number of companies. For example, one contract was to build whiskey boxes, and a whole department was developed just to make them. It was a huge contract that brought in money. And then there was a woodworking department and a packaging department: they packaged pretty much anything for different companies. There was a big contract for A&W packaging napkins, knives, forks, salt and pepper.

The DDRC was pretty forward thinking in those days. There were no other agencies at that time that were moving towards real work in the community with clients. But gradually we came to understand that [sheltered workshops] were providing perpetual training and you can’t be in training your whole life, something had to happen. Even before we were funded to do so, we identified people who we thought needed to have a real job. So we started to get people out into the community to work.

We lobbied the government to advocate for funding to get people more support. And to have staff that were trained in employment development, because that’s a unique skill. It’s one thing to look for your own job, but to help somebody else who may have more support needs: that is something else. And people often had no experience in helping others look for a job. So the whole process had to be developed. We started doing that in the mid-eighties.

C: What were some of the challenges during that process?

A: You know, in the very beginning when we were starting to convince families and the people that we supported that it would be a good thing to go swimming at the pool, or go to the gym, or it would be a good thing to have a job, many people didn’t understand what that meant because they had been excluded for so long.

What struck me in the beginning was how we thought “let’s help people to be part of the community because they have the right to do that,” but many families didn’t agree, and some clients were very hesitant. And I can understand that people felt there was a big risk, because people with disabilities hadn’t been treated that well in the past. You can help someone to learn to use the bus, but you have no control over stupid kids or even adults that call people names or make fun of them.

So there was some fear, and some people didn’t go with it, so they left and went to services that were still segregated.

C: It takes a long time for people to trust that change is positive.

A: And how could we guarantee that? We couldn’t guarantee that it would be ok. But most people were all for it. For people that were cautious, we needed to reassure them that we would do our best.

But when you think about it, how courageous those people were, when they first started to get out in the community. The first person that I supported for a job interview, I remember thinking, “he has a lot of courage to do this.” “He can’t fully know what having a job means yet,” but to trust me to take him to talk to a stranger. It gave me goose bumps.

C: How have you seen attitudes in the community change over the years?

A: In the beginning it was harder, because people in the community often hadn’t seen that many people with noticeable disabilities being a part of the regular, every-day fabric of the community. It was really tough for the people with disabilities… and I’m not saying that it isn’t now, it still is even though we have come this far.

Sometimes people gave up, but often people would trust us, which was just amazing to me. You know, think of what they are doing, although it might seem simple: letting people get to know you, talking to people, showing them what you can do. For many people, their priority was living their lives and getting on with what they wanted to do, but in those first years, these people did pave the path for others.

I think of them as freedom fighters. Both our clients and our frontline workers are very courageous. And it still takes a lot of courage and trust that this is the right thing to do.

C: What has kept you here at the DDRC?

A: People that stay in this sector, don’t do it to get rich, there is something here that keeps them here. It is a true belief. And it is not a bleeding heart thing. At the DDRC there was always an atmosphere, and a sense that this system was going evolve, it was going to change. There was always a sense that things were going to change to help people become a part of the world: true citizens.

In the beginning it wasn’t exactly clear how this was going to happen, but 15 years ago, the DDRC made a decision, we are not going to differentiate based on abilities. We are going to combine our services and we are going to shut down all of the sheltered workshops and group homes. We are going to focus on helping people be a part of the community. And that is where the big push came. We did a lot of advocacy for the funding that would be required to provide more individualized support. I am very proud to have been here, you might be able to tell. Because it has been a real process and to be a part of it has been amazing!

C: In your opinion, what is special about the DDRC?

A: The DDRC was always at the forefront.

A lot of the direction that the DDRC took was with input from families, and we also had very strong Boards that were very involved. The DDRC was a ground breaker.

Anni-3C: We have talked a lot about changes that have happened in the community and at the DDRC, but what do you think has stayed the same in our organization?

A: Our services have not stayed the same, because we have evolved. But I think the commitment of the people who do the work here has remained.

C: What is a defining memory from your time here?

A: One of the first young guys that I helped to find a job had never had any experience in the community; he had only ever worked in a sheltered workshop. I helped to go over interview skills with him, and how to dress and how to talk to a prospective employer.

In his interview, he followed everything to a tee and answered all of the employer’s questions. The employer was very impressed and at the end of the interview he said, “it looks like you are an excellent candidate and I would like to hire you.”

My client, Nick, started the next Monday. At first he felt confused, but then he went to his workstation and he received instruction from his boss. That was the moment that was very defining for me.

Nick turned around after a little while and he said, “Now I’m starting my real life!” I asked him: “What do you mean?” He said, “Before I was practising all the time, now this is my real life. I got a job like my dad. Now I am a man.” That set the tone for me, and I felt, “this is the right thing to do.”

C: Where do you think the DDRC will be in another 60 years?

A: My hope is that we will work ourselves out of a job. That in 60 years there won’t be any agency, it won’t be necessary. I think if we keep going in the direction that we have been going, it will happen. People will be included.