Consolation Prizes

By Victor Schwartzman and Paul Caune
November 2, 2011

For decades, voters with disabilities and their supporters have pushed for reforms of health care and social service bureaucracies. And there have been some real successes: curb cuts, liberating people from institutions, the Registered Disability Savings Plan. Tragically, says Paul Caune (Executive Director of Civil Rights Now! www.civilrightsnow.ca), advocates have failed much more often than they have won. One reason for this is that they waste their reforming energy by accepting consolation prizes.

A consolation prize is a prize given to a game’s loser — you didn’t win, so you get something to lessen the sting.  The game is the struggle between voters with disabilities and bureacrats who deny them access to a free and democratic society.
The consolation prizes for not getting into a free and democratic society? Community engagement, advisory committees, funding for videos and art shows, a meaningless apology, a meeting with a Minister.  

Not long ago, Paul Caune was asked by a B.C. health authority to participate in a brainstorming session. The goal of the session was how to quantify effective communication between people who live in nursing homes and the homes’ administrators. Present around the table included the health authority, people living in nursing homes, their families and advocates.

The presiding bureaucrat began the meeting by stating that “We are not here to discuss clinical issues”. What were the clinical issues not to be discussed? The actual quality of care within the nursing homes.

The banning of discussion of “clinical issues” meant the session was a magic show intended to create the illusion of genuine public input. IThe purpose of the consolation prize system is to create the illusion that voters with disabilities’ opinions and needs control the system. The essence of the consolation prize system is to go around the margins of a problems.

Paul rejected the concept of a nursing home itself. “It is a service delivery model that degrades people who receive the service. Discusing anything other than that is a wallpaper issue, where your big choice is deciding what colour or pattern of the wallpaper, but nothing else. The quality of care in nursing home is bad not because of bad communications but because it is a bad service delivery model. By its nature, the model degrades the people who receive the service.

“The people who administer nursing home or residential services such as Woodlands, they knew about tremendous abuses happening within those institutions. They permitted those acts not because of bad communication but because stopping the abuse of residents was not deemed an important issue. To accept the premise that bad communications is the issue is to accept a lie.”

“Consolation prizes are a giant deflection exercise. Voters with disabilities must have the self-discipline not to fall to the temptation of having their vanity stroked or their desperation taken advantage of. They should reject all consolation prizes or subvert them.”

Paul said he spent the entire consultation session subverting it. “We were asked to write on coloured paper, as if we were in kindergarten, the first thing which came to our head on how to make communications more effective. These papers were stuck to the wall and then categorized. My suggestion on how to make communication more effective inside nursing homes was to call the police and report being abused. And to call a press conference in the parking lot of a nursing home to describe the abuse. And to retain a lawyer.

“The bureaucrats responded with nervous laughter and brittle smiles. They kept trying to get me to accept their terms of reference, which I consistently rejected. The problem is not bad communication. It is bad faith.”

What was the brainstorming session? “They made a manual on how to measure communications in nursing homes. It’s pointless.”

“Recently, the City of Vancouver approved a Translink transit plan which is bad for voters with disabilities. So they also passed an amendment about how concerned they were, but they still supported the plan. They could have used their leverage to force Translink to include a plan for citizens with disabilities. But they did nothing for the benefit of voters with disabilities. Just a ‘we hear you and feel your pain’ gesture. A consolation prize in otherwords.”

Paul is concerned because the current plan, which claimed to value citizen input, will actually reduce the amount of needed service hours. “If you look at the projected population increase of who will need the service, the plan to increase service hours by a small amount is insignificant. Less people, including seniors, will get the service. There was no plan to reform the existing service, whose weaknesses have repeatedly been brought to Translink’s attention .

“So a city council said some voters’ needs have been rejected but we are not going to do anything about that. Why such a council would expect such voters and their families to vote for them on election day is beyond me.”

Service providers also participate in the consolation prize system. “Service providers use consolation prizes a lot to deflect advocates pushing for reform. One consolation prize for an organization is that you get money which does not meet the real world needs of your clients but which is good prestige for you. It makes you look better than you are because you receive a terrific sounding grant. And the government says, look at the organizations we give money to, they represent the best practices and services.”

“Tokenism is another great example of a consolation prize. If you have a client making critical remarks you label him a nasty old man or you suck him into make-work projects. Going to meetings is meaningless if they do not result in reform.”

“On paper the committee meetings have all these participants. The Government says, check out these minutes, we had a great meeting. They say they make decisions based on consultations with clients, but they define the terms of reference to guarantee a pre-determined conclusion. They also produce brochures which have some useful information but that’s not the same as providing services voters with disabilities need to live with dignity.

“ In the nineties, when I lived in a group home, we’d pull our hair out, going to endless soul-destroying meetings. Managers don’t know or care what’s going on, but their mandate, part of their funding, is that the residents are in charge, and that meant they had to create a paper-trail of meetings with them.”

In fact, the existence of many non-governmental organizations is itself a major consolation prize, with such services being used to put bandages on the worst problems while allowing the Government to avoid longer term solutions. Also, all the time and energy citizens put into creating and running NGOs that from time to time win a moral victory would be better spent becoming the balance of power in the coalitions that are mainstream political parties.

“Another consolation prize is simply to pay attention to someone, which is not the same as doing what’s needed. You can have a meeting with a Minister, but so what if it’s forgotten the moment you leave? Saying we consulted with stakeholders is not the same as saying we are doing what the stakeholders have told us to do. You reward those who accept consolation prizes by saying you collaborate with these groups.”

“There is an idea in B.C. that there should be an Advocate for people with disabilities, similar to the Advocate for children and youth. To me that would only be another consolation prize. An Advocate would create dozens of reports, but they would never be acted on. An Advocate would not have the power to enforce recommendations or punish wrong-doing. It would just be window dressing.

“Saying something embarrassing about the Government in an annual report is not the same as the Government being forced to do the right thing. It is a consolation prize to the community to see their concerns verified in a report. But it would be a much better prize if the Government took the right action.”

“When your civil rights are violated you don’t need a good hug, you need a good lawyer. The best advocate you can have is control of the almighty dollars needed to buy the goods and services you need to live with dignity.”

What is the worst consolation prize of them all?

“Being told by people how much they admire your passion and how inspirational you are as they do absolutely nothing practical to protect the freedom and dignity of voters with disabilities ,” said Paul as he checked his email.