Helen Ficocelli brings several perspectives to her position as a member of the Association’s Board of Directors. She has served on the board since 1984, when she moved to Grande Prairie from Quebec. With a Degree in Psychology, specializing in problems in education, she was interested in pursuing work in her field. Helen has also been involved with PDD (Persons with Developmental Disabilities).
In the past, Helen has taught literacy classes for the disabled. She discovered that working with the disabled was not her strength, but after her teaching experience, she retained a passion to help.
Helen’s experience with the handicapped in Alberta is markedly different than her experience in Montreal. She describes the Grande Prairie Association’s approach as very “hands-on.”
The Association for the Mentally Handicapped has always been there to serve the client. The disabled children they serve used to be hidden. Current administration structures everything so that the clients are very visible. Clients are clearly the primary reason for the work that is accomplished.
Helen has found that her contribution now takes the form of dealing with policies, new initiatives and working through the political processes that are involved in the work for the board. She points out that the political process doesn’t directly affect the clients, and it maintains that it shouldn’t.
Major changes occurred when PDD realized the need to provide the minimum basic service to clients. Some clients are able to work and need little or no government assistance. Others have no “voice” and someone has to be there to remind the government that they exist. Helen feels that, as a society, we have the responsibility to make sure the disabled are treated well and not forgotten.
The philosophy of integration is still being dealt with provincially and regionally. Helen feels that these discussions have a place “once people have food and basic services.”
Agencies such as GPDAMH deal with the clients every day and that is not the case with the government. She says that government representatives only have contact with the disabled who are able to attend conferences and be vocal, but there is a whole community of disabled individuals they are never directly involved with.
Organizations like the Association are involved with the handicapped every day. You can’t forget it. To me, the government should be providing the basic necessities to people with disabilities, or to the service agencies, so that services are provided to the handicapped. Agencies can than deal with having the handicapped as part of the community, because every agency knows its own communities. Availability of funding changes with the political environment.
The Association’s name changes over time “doesn’t change the clients, doesn’t change the situation.” Helen’s opinion is that the most recent name change, to Signature Support Services, is mostly a political move.
During her years with PDD Helen saw controversy over the inclusion of the phrase “people with disabilities” in the mission statement. The argument was put forward that a mission statement indicating service to “everybody” just didn’t make sense. Opposition to using inclusive terminology was challenged by one father who told the board that, by avoiding the words disability and handicap, their message was essentially that “my child with learning disabilities is wrong, because you can’t even say the word.”
Somebody has a disease, MS for instance. They have it. That’s part of them. You can’t change that. If you can’t use the word to describe what is part of that person, then you’re saying that’s wrong. And if we can’t put it in our mission that we are helping people with disabilities, then you are saying my child is wrong.
Helen can understand why some parents of the handicapped are not in favour of integration of the disabled into the regular classrooms and workforce because she knows that there is the potential for abuse.
As a mother of children who do not have disabilities, she also sees that, in some cases, a disabled child in a classroom can be very demanding and sometimes violent. She has a problem when it gets to the point of interference with her own children’s education or puts them at a physical risk. There is a need to ensure that there is adequate support for the disabled children in the public school system. There is a need for balance.
Sheltered workshops have been criticized for isolating the handicapped. Helen says that the workshop and places like Joy Chapel are places where there is a comfort level for the people with disabilities. “Don’t we all migrate to people who are similar to ourselves?” At the same time, the government supports “Leadership Today”, an organization for people with disabilities. “That’s not inclusion. They are making their own way.”
The most difficult issue Helen acknowledges over her twenty years on the Association board is funding. She says it is always an issue. Adequate funding is crucial to the ability of the Association to provide proper services to clients, startup of businesses to subsidize necessary services and to pay staff what they’re worth.
The Association has not gotten credit in the community as a large employer. It is a non-profit society that has existed for fifty years through the ups and downs of government and community.
Helen’s greatest reward comes from interaction with the clients and knowing that clients are being accepted in the community in a way that has not been possible in the past.
The Association is where it is now because of Executive Director Barry Bucknell and his strong vision. I don’t think there is a stronger advocate for people with disabilities than Barry. Not in this province anyway. All of his decisions come down to the client. It’s amazing.