Dr. Simone Abbass
For some people there’s a place, time, or event that impacts the direction of an individual’s life, defining who they will become, where they will go, and what they will do.
Dr. Simone Abbass believes that moment happened for her as a young girl growing up in Sydney, Nova Scotia with an older brother living with a mental disability. It was her brother Tommy’s own struggles and needs that inspired her to become a dentist. More than that, it motivated her to advocate for persons with disabilities and open a not-for-profit society called Isaiah House in Dartmouth, N.S. As Chair and House Director at Isaiah House for the past twenty-three years, Dr. Abbass seeks to help individuals with disabilities live fuller, happier lives outside of institutional settings by providing them with a long-term residence in the community.
Finding strength in family
In the 1950’s and throughout the 1980’s, the Abbass family had a very difficult time accessing various health services for Tommy. Dr. Abbass recalls her family traveling to Halifax so their son could receive specialty treatment.
“They couldn’t access services for Tommy in the same way they did for all their other children,” said Dr. Abbass.
“My parents had to travel five hours away from home to find a dentist, and sometimes physicians, who treated children with Tommy’s level of need.”
Being one of eight children who proudly participated in the care of her brother, Dr. Abbass said she watched her parents worry for years about not being able to provide Tommy with the immediate care he so often needed – struggling medically at times as a result.
“At the age of 19, his needs couldn’t be met by our family alone,” said Dr. Abbass.
“He left our home to live in the only option available at the time, which was institutional care.”
It was the family’s hope that while living there, Tommy would thrive, learn new skills, and move to a group home in Sydney. Unfortunately he did not cope well in his new environment and his health quickly declined.
“I was only 16 at the time and it was a very traumatic event for me,” said Dr. Abbass
“It only increased my desire to help him and others like him by pursing a higher education. My family and I worked together with the institution to help give Tommy an appropriate quality of life for as long as we possibly could.”
Building a home
After a great deal of research, Dr. Abbass eventually discovered that there was a severe shortage of community living options for individuals with disabilities—not just on the island of Cape Breton, but across the whole province. In 1992, she was able to secure him a place on a wait list for a group home in the Halifax area.
“The wait was at least eight to 10 years for a home that addressed his level of need,” said Dr. Abbass.
“I truly felt at the time that the only way for Tommy to be well again, and to thrive, was for me to create an appropriate living option for him.”
Dr. Abbass approached the Department of Community Services of Nova Scotia in 1992 and in 1994 Isaiah House was open – serving the needs of not only her brother but two other men with disabilities within the area.
Paying it forward
Dr. Abbass says there is still a shortage of community living options for adults with disabilities in Nova Scotia. This leaves people with little opportunity to lead happy and full lives, and families without access to services for loved ones.
“Work programs for individuals with disabilities are also short in supply,” says Dr. Abbass.
“Therefore they don’t have the ability to leave their homes to pursue work or social environments.”
It is her hope that this example of volunteer work over the years will inspire others to seek more appropriate living options for loved ones with special needs and, in doing so, improve the quality of life for them and their families.
In addition to her personal experiences, Dr. Abbass believes working as a dentist and working alongside the individuals and families at Isaiah House has taught her the necessary skills to help herself and others persevere; a quality that has undoubtedly made her a leader in her profession and community.
“My work with Isaiah House has allowed me to give back, not just to the broader community but individuals and families who are in serious need,” said Dr. Abbass. “
“I am extremely grateful to all those involved in this journey. It allowed me to provide my brother with a well-supported living option and better quality of life for 16 years before he passed away in 2010. I look forward to sharing my passion, talent and time in the years to come, continuing to help those who do not have the ability to care for and support themselves.”