‘Everyone … has a sob story’: Thalidomide survivors say they were belittled by disabilities minister

Members of a thalidomide survivor group say they felt belittled and are appalled after meeting with Kent Hehr, the federal minister for persons with disabilities, and accuse him of making repugnant statements about their life expectancies.

Fiona Sampson, a thalidomide survivor who attended the meeting, said Hehr degraded patients with his remarks in an Oct. 19 meeting. 

“In response to members of the group reading really heartfelt testimonials, Minister Hehr — apropos of nothing — commented, ‘Well you don’t have it as bad today as adults as you did when you were kids,'” said Sampson, a human rights lawyer told reporters Tuesday.

“Then he went on to say, ‘Well you don’t have it so bad. Everyone in Canada has a sob story.'”

Thalidomide Survivors say they were degraded by the Disabilities Minister1:57

Sampson said one of the most repugnant statements in the 30-minute meeting came after the group explained to Hehr that they have shortened lifespans and have already lost five members since the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion to support survivors back in 2014.

“He said to us, ‘So you probably have about 10 years left then now. That’s good news for the Canadian government.’ We were shocked and appalled,” she said.

One of the members in that meeting was hospitalized in the ICU two weeks later, said Sampson, making his comments “especially repugnant” 

In a statement, Hehr denied making comments about lifespans at the meeting, but said he apologized to the organization after his comments were misconstrued.

“My heart goes out to thalidomide survivors. I have listened to their stories and I know our government, led by the minister of health, is taking the concerns very seriously and I will continue to advocate on behalf of all Canadians with disabilities,” said Hehr in a statement issued Tuesday.

“As someone with a disability myself, it was certainly not my intention to offend anyone. While some of my comments were misconstrued, as soon as I learned that my comments were felt to be offensive, I immediately called the organization directly and apologized.”

The survivors are calling on the federal government to honour a pledge to compensate them with a lump sum payment of $250,000 and increased annual pensions.

They say patients have received lump sum payments of $125,000 each, noting they are struggling to make ends meet due to the extent of their disabilities.

In December 2014, the House of Commons passed a unanimous motion with a commitment to provide “full support’ to Canadian thalidomide victims who were born with physical disabilities due to the effects of the drug during pregnancy.