Finding purpose in advocacy


First-year social work student Josh Lamers (Gina Wicentowich/Ryersonian Staff)

Growing up with an autistic brother, 20-year-old Ryerson student Josh Lamers saw first-hand that there isn’t enough being done to accommodate the needs of young people with disabilities.

“This is the issue: the families who care about (those with disabilities) and are supporting them aren’t allowed to talk or make any suggestions to the school board or community housing,” Lamers said.

His disillusionment led Lamers, a first-year social work student, to become involved with advocating for change.

“I’ve met so many awful social workers. I never wanted to be associated with that. But then, I started realizing a big part of social work is advocacy and attacking policies made by the government. I was like, ‘Sign me up.’”

Lamers is one of a dozen people chosen to take part in the recently-launched website, “I Have Something to Say,” led by Irwin Elman from the Office of The Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth. The campaign aims to provide a online platform for young people with disabilities to share their perspectives. Children, youth and their families are encouraged to write tell their stories through a piece of art, video, song, e-book or any other creative project.

He was also recently hired to lead the Voyager Project, led by Kim Snow, associate professor at Ryerson’s School of Child and Youth Care. Lamers and his colleagues go to foster care facilities to interact with young people in the hopes of improving their educational outcomes.

Lamers grew up in a neglectful foster home in Orillia, Ont. He was separated from his biological brother TJ when he was adopted at the age of four by a family that lived in Midland, Ont. His brother had fetal alcohol syndrome. They had also adopted an eight-year-old autistic boy, Jason.

At first, Lamers didn’t think that he and Jason were all that different.

“To me, Jason and I liked all the same things, played with all the same toys and fought over everything. It was normal,” he said. “Except, Jason got in trouble more.”

Lamers recognized there was something wrong when Jason started getting suspended regularly from school. Jason was suspended 150 days before he reached the age of 8.

The school had difficulty dealing with Jason’s specific needs. Autistic children tend to lack social skills are prone to misunderstanding rules and have aggressive behaviour. Lamers believes that the school’s failure to accommodate Jason left his brother lacking in a proper education and basic life skills.

“It got to the point (that) by the time my brother was 12, they suspended him again for something, and he came home and was going to commit suicide. My mom had to stop him,” Lamers said.

After this incident, his mother decided Jason needed more structure in his life. So between the ages of 12 and 18, Jason lived in and out of different group homes that specialized in helping children with disabilities.

Once he turned 18, Jason was asked if he wanted to be placed in independent supported living. Jason agreed and moved to an apartment with other people with special needs who were monitored by a worker who made daily visits.

After a month of this arrangement, he was off his medication and had dropped out of high school.

According to the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 46 per cent of students with behavioural disabilities will not complete high school.

After two months, Jason was evicted and returned to his adoptive parents who were given no financial government assistance.

“I remember a meeting where my mom just broke down and cried, begging for help. The community housing workers were watching my mom cry and were just like, ‘no,’” Lamers said.

“I just thought, ‘Where is the social work part of this? Where is the empathy?’”

In addition to difficulties at home, Lamers, who is both black and gay, had to face his own personal struggles.

“It was hell. And during that period, I’m (also) dealing with who I am. I was bullied at school (and) they called my family the retard family,” Lamers said. “I was bullied because I was the one black kid in school. And I got homophobic remarks left, right and center.

“Everyone told me my brother was a monster. To me, that’s what he was. I saw him as the monster that everyone created.”

Lamers is currently living in Toronto while in school. His brother Jason is still living with his parents. The only support the government has supplied is a social worker that makes monthly appearances, where the worker has confidential meetings with Jason, leaving the family in the dark.

“That’s kind of why I’m at the advocate’s office. Maybe in four years, there can be something for my parents or something for my brother to get him somewhere,” Lamers said.

“I don’t know how I came out like I did, but I’m assuming it’s sheer luck. But there’s going to be kids that aren’t strong. Some kids won’t be able to go through what I went through. I don’t want to ever hear my same story … except for it going down a different road.”

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