How Justin Clark’s fight for independence transformed disability rights in Canada

Clark, who was born with cerebral palsy, sued his parents for the right to make his own decisions.

When Justin Clark reaches out and touches letters and symbols on the Dynavox computer screen attached to his wheelchair, it activates a synthesized voice.

“I love my beautiful, beautiful family,” he says.

Clark says that his love was never in doubt, even though he took his own parents to court when he was 20 in a bid to prove that he was a mentally competent adult, and therefore had the right to make decisions about his own life.

Clark was born with cerebral palsy. When he was two, doctors advised his parents to place him in the Rideau Regional Centre in Smiths Falls, Ont., a little more than an hour’s drive from Ottawa. He grew up isolated from his parents and his five older siblings.

In 1982, he won the right to leave the institution and make his own decisions about his future. The impact of his case — a pivotal moment in the Canadian disability rights movement — continues to be felt today.

Following the ruling, guardianship laws were re-examined, and in some provinces, rewritten. Disability rights advocates say there is still a long way to go, but Clark’s case paved the way for other people with disabilities fighting to make their own decisions, rather than have legal guardians make them on their behalf.

Today, at 56, Clark is thriving. He has travelled widely — to Germany, Switzerland, France and to visit a brother in the United States. He sees his siblings and friends regularly, and corresponds with them by email.

He loves his job at Computer Wise, where he designs greeting cards and calendars. Once or twice a week, he plays bocce at the gymnasium of an Ottawa rehab centre.

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