24 April 2009

Discrimination against mentally disabled and developmentally challenged: Orillia

Recently, in March, 2009, while searching the internet for information on the Ontraio Hospital at Orillia, Ontario, I came across a website offering the postcard 'Ontario Hospital or the Orillia Asylum for Idiots'. The site was apparently set up by the Orillia Public Library. I submitted a comment (on March 16, 2009) to the site, http://images.ourontario.ca/orillia/details.asp?ID=20399&p=c, giving my thoughts on this, as follows:

I'm really surprised that a library would resort to using this kind of description - even if it's true that the Ontario Hospital at Orillia once was called the Asylum for Idiots. To have it set up so that people can actually send this card by email is beyond belief. If you had the opportunity, library staff, would you make such postcards available to email if they showed and mentioned 'n----rs'? [Posted by Sue McPherson, 16 Mar 2009 at 16:17].

When I checked the other day, a response had been posted from the editors of the site, but which neglected to address my concerns:

Thank you for your comments Sue. I appreciate your concern regarding derogatory terms in these listings but the fact of the matter is...the name of the hospital was at that time called the Orillia Asylum for Idiots. Bear in mind that this was a the term used back in the 1860.s & 1870s. Of course we don't use such terms today. However, when inputting historical information it is important that we keep the names, titles and terminology given at that period in time. This makes it easier for those doing research and will be looking for something using the official title. Here is some history on the building you might find it interesting. This is a direct passage from the Frost Scrapbook. Couchiching Beach Park was originally called ‘Asylum Point”. The building was originally erected for a hotel by Henry Fraser of Price’s Corners. It was purchased by the Government in 1859 and enlarged and occupied by a “Convalescent Lunatic Asylum” to use the objectionable description of those days. The hospital was under the charge of Dr. John Ardagh. The name was later changed to “Orillia Lunatic Asylum for Chronic Patients”. This was later converted to “Asylum for Idiots” under Dr. Beaton. The Beaton family were very well known in Orillia. The building was then torn down after which the property was purchased by the Town for Couchiching Beach Park. The Price was $10,000.00. The present great institution for defective children was then erected on its present on Lake Simcoe. On an aside. In later years the new building became known as the Huronia Regional Centre or H.R.C. That is what it is called today.

I decided to submit another comment, which I did today, April 24, 2009, to the same site, as follow:

I didn't realize you were 'inputting historical information on the internet' in this manner. I thought it was a joke - a bad one, making fun of people, once again, whose mental condition has so often been something of ridicule in society. The fact of the matter is, that while it may be true the institution was called that (an asylum for idots) it is not so true that it was them who were the idiots. It might just be that the people who put them there, who treated them, and punished them, were the idiots.

I could understand it, to some extent, if you felt threatened by the people you are telling this kind of distortion about, if they were rich, powerful women and men. But they weren't. The patients were often lied about, or punished for not conforming to society, perhaps placed in the mental hospital by their families in order to get rid of them, or sometimes they may have been victims of misunderstandings, of their own emotions, or the emotions of others. I agree, to a large extent, that understanding the circumstances of the historical topic requires an analysis sensitive to its history, but more than that I believe it requires an analysis sensitive to the topic itself, and not just to the historical period. Unfortunately, that was lacking in the original set-up of the postcard online, as you (who by the way still remains anonymous) must realize. I do realize that the Orillia institution was more recently known as the Huronia Regional Centre, from doing an internet search on the subject, and many years ago I worked summers at the Ontario Hospital in Woodstock (later called the Oxford Regional Centre), and knew of the hospital in Orillia.
[submitted April 24, 2009, by Sue McPherson].

Added Apr 25, 2012

Since then, several other comments have been made, some concerned about having the truth about the hospital told, some more about the criticism itself.

As it happens, through the comments now on this site, telling the story of the building, one of the main problems has been resolved. If a reputable organization decides to promote its city’s history or offer information for anyone with connections, then using a defamatory title on such a postcard would need to be accompanied by an explanation of how it came to be used and what the building later came to be known as – in other words – the history of the postcard.

Simply posting an image of the postcard, for internet viewers to access and pay a fee to email interested others, without explaining the history, would simply perpetuate the ignorance of viewers as well as, perhaps, receivers of the email postcard which had the title ‘Orillia Asylum of Idiots.’

Strangely, I didn’t receive any acknowledgment of the part I played in raising awareness of this issue, but I do hope it has sunk in. Without an explanation to go with the postcard, displaying it in such a manner suggests other motives than educating readers.

Postcard ‘Orillia Asylum for Idiots’
Orillia Library online images

Link updated Apr 2012

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