Free Kimberley Robbins!

Picture of Kimberley Robbins in a hospital bed, with an image of Duke loaded on her Mac laptopWhile I’ve been following the case of Ayn Van Dyk, the autistic girl seized from her father for ridiculous reasons in British Columbia in June and still in care (see earlier post), there has been another saga involving a person with a disability being mistreated going on at the other end of the country. Kimberley Robbins lives in Newfoundland; she has been blind since birth and incurred a spinal cord injury in 2004, after suffering an acute case of transverse myelitis (an inflammation of a section of the spinal cord, in her case the C6 area). Since then, after getting out of rehab in 2005, she has lived independently (quite rare for someone with that level of injury), but has been dealing with increasingly severe spasms, which earlier this year put her in hospital and then another rehabilitation unit at the Dr Leonard Miller Centre in St John’s, the provincial capital; she has documented her experiences in the unit here and more recently here. Her experience recently made the local papers, which can be read anywhere in the world on their website.

Kim has had a guide dog since well before her initial injury, and she was able to retrain her first dog, Sophie, to pull her manual wheelchair. The norm for someone who requires a wheelchair and a guide dog is to have a powered chair and guide dog schools do not train dogs to pull owners in manual chairs, but Kim believed initially that a power-chair would reduce her independence as it would not use her muscles, thus making it impossible for her to transfer (from chair to bed, for example) without help. She also resisted attempts to have her put in a nursing home and to have her guide dog removed (a doctor tried to have her declared incompetent for that purpose, but she enlisted the help of a psychiatrist who declared her fully competent, more than most of the staff in fact). In the intervening years Sophie retired and then died; she has had to train her new guide and service dog, a male Siberian husky named Duke, in the UK where her fiancé lives.

Since going back into rehab, however, the need for a power-chair has become obvious: she could not presently remain in a lightweight manual chair of the sort someone with her level of disability requires, due to the severity of her spasms, and even when they are reduced, as she expects surgery to do some time fairly soon, using a manual chair everywhere would damage her shoulder muscles which are vitally important. However, the rehab centre staff have decided that it is not safe to let Kim use her power-chair because (with or without a guide dog) she might run into things and cause damage to people or property. The upshot is that she has been left effectively bedridden for the entire period in so-called rehab, being allowed out of bed only for supervised outings and various medical appointments. During this time she has also been moved from room to room on several occasions, frequently disrupting her ability to communicate with the outside world as the new room has often lacked an internet connection (why an internet connection is not standard in all patient rooms in such facilities is a mystery; it is vital for them to be able to communicate with their friends, as any long-term sick person will nowadays testify).

The whole point of a rehab facility is to train someone to live as independently as they can, by teaching them skills they need and, in the case of paraplegics and low-level quadriplegics like Kimberley, building up the strength they would not already have had (as you do not use your arms to propel yourself if you are not a wheelchair user, and what strength you might already have had may have been wasted away from spending several months in bed in hospital). For someone to spend months simply lying in bed, because the staff have never come across a physically disabled blind person before and are unwilling to take risks. As Dea Birkett, whose daughter (the actress Storme Toolis, who appeared recently in The Inbetweeners Movie) has cerebral palsy, wrote, health and safety is the “last resort of the exclusion scoundrel”, with wheelchair users being branded “fire hazards” and denied services on the basis of spurious risks, but that it is happening in a rehab centre is quite ridiculous — no doubt someone is still lying in hospital, unable to even get to rehab, because the staff are keeping Kim there when they have nothing to offer her.

From having followed Kim on Facebook, it appears she is looking at other rehab centres in Canada, but she should be able to get the treatment she needs fairly close to home, if not in Newfoundland then at least not the other end of the country (which is Canada, remember). There is an “ethics committee” meeting scheduled for this coming Wednesday, but it should not take any committee to put some common sense into people who are meant to rehabilitate disabled people, and not just those with common or uncomplicated disabilities. Those resonsible for this should be facing a disciplinary committee; they have proven themselves callous and incompetent again and again.

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