Back in the early 80’s, I met Neil Mercer. He had lived for 13 years in an institution (“unlucky 13,” he always said) and was probably the first person I’d ever known who had been in an institution for people with disabilities. He was always my touchstone about what happens when people are warehoused, segregated and “treated like they don’t know anything and people take away any right to thinking.” Neil always spoke plainly about his experiences, his life, what he hoped – what he knew – people with disabilities could accomplish. He never shied away from telling his story, and was proud to have a chapter in my first book about people with disabilities, Speakeasy: People with Mental Handicaps Talk About Their Lives in Institutions and in the Community (Pro-Ed, 1990). It was an unwieldy title, but Neil liked it. “We have to talk about what our lives were like in there and what our lives are like out of that place so people don’t do that crap any more.” His stories about the inhumanity that played out in a multitude of daily minutiae were powerful lessons about segregation. If anyone ever felt a bit ambiguous about inclusion, all that was necessary was a cup of coffee and a good talk with Neil. His fondest dream was that Valley View Centre – he never called it ‘home’ – would close. “Burning it to the ground” would have been okay by him. When closure was finally announced in 2012, Rick, Jim and I went to visit Neil at his downtown Saskatoon apartment. His health hadn’t been good for awhile and his eyesight wasn’t so hot, but he always had a big smile and that dry sense of humour. “Jim should be happy (that Valley View is closing),” he said. “You won’t ever have to be scared someone will take him away and put him there because ‘that’s where all those people are supposed to be.’ Where we’re supposed to be is right where he is.”
Neil died on Friday, October 2nd. He was a very good teacher, a dedicated change agent, and a decent man.