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Geoffrey Reaume gives a lecture on memorializing disability history in Canada

March 31, 2011

Above: Geoff Reaume gave us a ‘virtual tour’ of the Toronto Asylum walls.

By Joanne Woiak, Disability Studies

Geoffrey Reaume, an associate professor in the Critical Disability Studies Graduate Program at York University in Toronto, visited the University of Washington in early February as part of the lecture and film series “Unspeakable: Disability History, Identity, and Rights.”

Geoff Reaume received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Toronto in 1997. He is the author of Remembrance of Patients Past: Patient Life at the Toronto Hospital for the Insane, 1870-1940, and a co-founder of the Psychiatric Survivor Archives, Toronto. During his visit he participated in two public events. On Tuesday, February 8, we screened the documentary film Hurry Tomorrow, and afterwards Geoff facilitated a discussion about the conditions in psychiatric wards in the 1970s and alternative forms of community-based treatment and peer support available today for people with mental disabilities. In the conversation, Geoff helped to draw comparisons between how Canada and the United States approach issues of mental health care provision, such as the implementation of patient bills of rights, the dilemma of trans-institutionalization, and the universal problem of funding cuts to health and social services.

Geoff’s presentation on the evening of Thursday February 10 was entitled “Memorializing Mad People’s History: Preserving Our Past through Archives and Activism.” His work encompasses several projects that recover the words, activities, and histories of people with psychiatric diagnoses in Canada. He talked about his research on early-20th-century patient records and letters from the Toronto Asylum, his efforts to establish historical plaques commemorating the patient labor that built the asylum walls and to mark asylum gravesites, and a new initiative to archive the literature of the psychiatric consumer/survivors’ movement. The audience was especially interested to learn about how this memorializing work could serve as a model for similar projects in the Unites States.

Geoff’s presentations helped the campus community and the public to gain a greater appreciation for the work being done in Canadian public history and disability advocacy. His perspective on the history, identity, and rights of people labeled with mental disabilities made a valuable contribution to the programming around the Willard exhibit. The Disability Studies Program is grateful to the co-sponsors of these events, and we look forward to future collaborations with the Canadian Studies Center.

Joanne Woiak has a Ph.D. in the history of science from the University of Toronto and is now a Lecturer in the Disability Studies Program at UW. She organized the “Unspeakable” series ( as well as the 2009 public symposium “Eugenics and Disability: History and Legacy in Washington” (

This project was supported, in part, by funding from the Center’s Title VI grant, U.S. Department of Education, Office of International Education Programs Service.