The personal is political: history professor takes on housing advocacy for adults with developmental disabilities

October 30, 2019 by Jovana Jankovic - A&S News

As a teacher, Ronald Pruessen has always felt strongly about encouraging growth in his students, whether they’re first-year undergraduates or doctoral candidates.  

It’s something he says is an important part of the human experience for everyone, including his daughter Caroline who has developmental disabilities. 

“Regardless of ability, we're all constantly growing and evolving as people,” says Pruessen, who is a professor in the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts & Science and a specialist in American foreign policy and international relations.

Now in her early 40s, Caroline first entered a waiting list for supportive housing — which comes with staff on the scene to help with daily needs and security — when she was a teenager because Pruessen and Caroline’s mother were told it can take up to a decade for a spot to become available.

“We wanted Caroline to have the autonomy that she needs to grow and mature,” says Pruessen. “Despite her disabilities, she's a bright, energetic person who would benefit from a greater degree of independence. And people with developmental disabilities still living at home sometimes get moved into facilities that are totally inappropriate for them if their parents grow ill or die.”

When she was 38 years old — a full 22 years after signing up to the waiting list — Caroline found a residential opportunity.

“Our case was not remotely unique,” says Pruessen. “There are 15,000 people waiting for these kinds of residential opportunities in Ontario. Some have been on the list for more than 20 years.”

Pruessen and his family got involved in advocacy for adults with developmental disabilities long ago in their home community of Mississauga to bolster recreational day programs as well as social and educational opportunities for people like Caroline.

In 2014, Pruessen and others involved in an advisory group working with the provincial government proposed an action-oriented study of housing needs for adults with developmental disabilities and they were invited by the Ministry of Community & Social Services — now the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services — to strike a task force.

Pruessen reduced his academic workload in order to volunteer as chair of the Developmental Services Housing Task Force, an initiative that researched, consulted on and eventually compiled a series of recommendations to increase access to housing. 

Looking back on four years of task force efforts, Pruessen says “There seems to be a black hole of recognition that this is really a crisis situation. The government doesn't even use the word ‘crisis’ to describe it, even though 15,000 people and counting are affected.”

The task force published its report in August of this year, and the “reaction has been extremely positive,” says Pruessen. 

Families and community members have been encouraged to contact their MPPs or local government officials to demand action on the report’s recommendations, including a ten-year plan appropriate to ameliorating a crisis situation, expanding funding for innovative housing models, harnessing technological innovation, and increasing community consultation.

“We are still waiting for consultation with the provincial government,” says Pruessen. 

Despite the lack of government action thus far, Pruessen says the task force’s report has value as “a legacy document.”

“We know this crisis is going to take a long time to solve, so we wanted to put some markers down for steps that should be taken — some medium- and longer-term goals to aim for. You don't solve a crisis overnight — but you start moving in the right direction, little by little.”

Chairing the provincial government’s Developmental Services Housing Task Force might seem like a sharp left turn for a professor of history and specialist in foreign affairs.

But Pruessen’s decades of work as a scholar aren’t entirely unrelated. In fact, he says his academic work was not only useful to the housing task force, but also invigorated by it.

“Part of the advocacy process has been similar to my teaching work,” he says. “I and my task force colleagues would reach out to individuals and families to help them learn about the landscape. This, in turn, amounted to research on our part — tapping into the lived experience on the front lines. Teaching people at the government level is important too. They need to hear from those front lines.”

His research also received an unexpected shot of inspiration from his academic work.

“It was incredibly interesting to see how things work in the provincial government — a seemingly different but ultimately related context to my area of research. I saw how the provincial political system works, how decisions are made, how power is used or withheld.”

Pruessen is unequivocal about the high translatability of academic skills like his across a variety of careers — particularly important at a moment when PhD graduates vastly outnumber available academic jobs in all but a few specialized areas of study.

“Historians, for instance, not only have strong research skills, but also know how to organize information. We can take thousands of pages of documents and produce a succinct report. We know how to analyze, how to take massive amounts of information and make sense of it and see what the patterns are.”

Meanwhile, Caroline is thriving in a group home near Bracebridge. 

“It has worked out extremely well for her,” says Pruessen. “But there is still a huge systemic problem. There are just too few opportunities.”