December 1st 2015 I was walking towards the House of Parliament in Whitehall, London to listen to a debate on the distribution of funding for Autism programs in the U.K. when my phone rang.
It was Moira Welsh, an investigative journalist from the Toronto Star whom I had been working with for over a year on the subject of Ontario’s Sheltered Workshops. A Sheltered Workshop is a manufacturing or packaging business staffed by “workers” who are intellectually challenged. Moira had written an expose on these locations with the first post published a few days prior to this phone call. The second was published November 30th, the day before the phone call. There were other posts ready to publish.
For years I and many others had fought hard to close down these dreadful entities. Many in society wrongly believe that these places are doing good work, that it is a safe place for these individuals to go to, to socialize and to earn some money.
The reality is very different. First, none of these workers in the 45 or so large workshops in the Province earn anything at all. Perhaps in some cases they may earn a stipend, perhaps a movie pass after a weeks work. Secondly, the only people working at these shops are those with intellectual disabilities, secluded from the rest of society. These workshops are often connected to or associated with social service agencies such as Goodwill, Community Living, the Salvation Army and others therefore they receive funding through the Ministry of Community and Social Services.
Seclusion by design is oppression.
Despite our work to challenge various governments to change course, close down the model and get these individuals into real jobs, nothing happened until that phone call from Moira. Moira says to me, “Mark are you sitting down?” “the Government has caved, the sheltered workshop model is dead”
This happened as a result of the Stars expose.
The Minister responsible for this decision was Helena Jaczek, Minister of Community and Social Services. It was a brave decision indeed because many non-disabled people relied on the sheltered workshops for their income, managing the shops, while parents of adult children working in the shops did not at first understand what would happen to their sons and daughters. There was fear and that of course was understandable.
Sheltered workshops have often been depicted as sophisticated slavery. Very few countries in the world allow them to exist, Canada has been ridiculed by European countries for continuing to use this model. The workshops were originally created after World War II to rehabilitate injured soldiers so they could return to work. In the late 70’s someone came up with the idea that this would work also for those with disabilities. Perhaps it would have been if the idea was a stepping stone to real work for real pay but that rarely happens.
One may wonder how it is possible that workers can earn less than minimum wage in Canada. The Employment Standards Act has a carve out that allows a sheltered workshop to pay by piece work. The shop however determines the production goal and often that goal is beyond the means of even non-disabled workers. In fact even with Bill 148 in place in Ontario with a new minimum wage of $14 per hour, sheltered workshops still can continue to pay workers whatever they wish.
The reason I am writing about this today is because this week a group of parents and support workers from Guelph traveled to Queens Park to protest the closing of the workshops. These parents are desperate however they are misguided. One parent pointed out that her son enjoyed going to work and socializing with others. Of course he does, he knows no other normal, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Social media for the most part supported these parents because as I said previously society doesn’t typically understand the damage these workshops are doing.
The government gave the workshops a soft deadline of five years to transition. From my perspective more than half the workers in a sheltered workshop are employable in real jobs for real pay in the private sector. The Government did not legislate the end of the model and that in my opinion was a mistake because some shops have gone underground, rebranded as gathering spots with no programs or strategies while some have approached private sector donors so that they can continue.
For those who can’t work in real jobs, innovative programs need to be designed. Life skills programs in an inclusive setting where these individuals are interacting every day with people who are not disabled.
People with intellectual disabilities reach their full potential in the workplace while working with those without disabilities. They mimic or try to be like those around them. If they are in a workshop with other people like them, the set the bar extremely low, in a real job they try to emulate those who are so called typically normal. Only then can a worker with an intellectual disability be the best they can be.
Although I certainly feel the frustration and fear of the families who traveled to Queens Park this week, a return to this dreadful model must never happen. The transition is under way, it’s not easy but it is entirely necessary so that thousands of Ontarian’s with intellectual disabilities can live a life where they are independent, supporting themselves and living life to its fullest. Anything less is unacceptable.
Be Direct, Be Daring, Be Bold
According to London’s Financial Times, the global impact of disability on humanity is growing rapidly. Estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests 1B people worldwide currently have disabilities, 800M of those being of working age. Four fifths of those are in developing nations with 200M being adults with significant disabilities or difficulties in functioning.
These numbers are about to explode. People are living longer and chronic conditions such as Diabetes are on the rise. As well conditions developed at birth along with mental health disabilities discovered later in life either increase or become more difficult to manage with age.
The UN backed global burden on disease study uses a calculation of years lived with disability that shows three quarters of medical conditions would benefit from rehabilitation support. This is limited even in developed nations.
My good friend, Susan Scott Parker CEO of the UK based International Forum on Disability says one of three adults aged 50-65 will have a disability. “It’s simply an inevitable part of what it means to be human.”
There are many organizations around the world doing remarkable work to ensure those belonging to or joining this growing demographic are cared for with dignity, are represented in society and are ensuring barriers are broken down. Although technology has made significant changes to the lives of those with disabilities, technology also creates its own barriers.
The one area where a break through has still not materialized is in employment. Accessibility has increased exponentially over the past ten years yet even employers who create fully accessible workplaces are still largely reluctant to staff those workplaces with workers who have disabilities. An example of systemic barriers around technology is with online recruitment practices.
An employer would not invite a wheelchair user to a job interview on the second floor of a building with no elevator and expect the candidate to climb the stairs. This would be outrageous however it is equally outrageous that an employer uses outdated, inaccessible online recruitment software that blocks those with low vision, dyslexia and other types of disabilities. In fact one of the most popular online recruitment software programs out there today blocks those with the aforementioned disabilities. This is humiliating but it also prevents a recruiter from hiring some potentially amazing talent.
The U.S. Department of Labour announced its 25th straight month of increased labour force increases for Americans with disabilities in April however, America is still not back to its pre-2008, pre-recession participation rates. Cause for celebration and alarm at the same time.
As the demographic increases, employment is going to become a critical factor in ensuring this massive minority group live full contributive lives. Our Governments must set the tone and provide significant guidance to the private sector. The global economic burden will be unsustainable if the current lack of workplace participation remains as it is today as we quickly move to a disability rate of one in five.
Note : Mark Wafer will co-moderate a leaders debate on accessibility and inclusion at Ryerson University May 16th along with Canadian Press reporter Michelle MacQuigge. This event will be live streamed, please check Ryerson website for details.
For the 24th consecutive month we are seeing an increase in marketplace attachment for Americans with disabilities. The gains made by people with disabilities continues to outpace the gains made by people without disabilities according to the Institute on Disability.
The Bureau of Labour Statistics Jobs Report released on April 6th showed an increase in the ratio of working-age people with disabilities from 28.6% in March 2017 to 31.7% in March 2018, an increase of 10.8%. The BLS uses an employment to population ratio that reflects the percentage of people who are working relative to the total population.
According to the Kessler Foundation, the labour force participation rate for working-age people with disabilities increased from 32.2% in march 2017 to 34.8% in March 2018, an increase of 7.7%. Kessler uses a different set of parameters to achieve its numbers. Director of Employment and Disability at Kessler, John O’Neill, indicates that with this upward trend, people with disabilities are closing in on their pre-Great Recession employment levels.
It is important to keep in mind that these statistics should only be used as a comparison to show improvement year over year. Statistics do not include those who have no marketplace attachment. In the United States that number is in the millions, perhaps even tens of millions. Therefore it is widely known and assumed that the real participation rate is much lower. For example, in March 2018, among workers ages 16-64, the 4.9m workers with disabilities represented 3.4% of the total 145m workers in the United States despite the rate of disability approaching 20%.
Here in Ontario we do not track these numbers. Anecdotally however we are experiencing a similar increase in the number of people with disabilities finding jobs. Despite the Provincial Governments unwise role out of Bill 148, the new Employment Standards Act, more people with disabilities are finding work. For each worker with disabilities who lost their job as a result of Bill 148, up to two workers are finding a job. The Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN) reports that there is a move away from the retail sector for entry-level jobs for people with disabilities and a move into manufacturing jobs.
The shift from retail to manufacturing is important. Retail has always been the “go to” for agencies who represent individuals with intellectual disabilities. 70% of such workers find themselves in minimum wage jobs at Quick service restaurants and retail shops. With a shift to manufacturing jobs, workers are receiving higher wages and benefits.
As well we are seeing emerging corporate leadership with Dare Foods and the Canadian National Exhibition hiring large numbers of workers with disabilities. A commitment to be an inclusive champion. Although new to the game, both companies join the ranks of those who lead in this space.
Kessler Foundations O’Neill added, “the strengthening economy underscores the value of diversity In the workplace. As hiring increases, preparing for the workplace is more important than ever for people with disabilities”.
Now more than ever Be Direct, Be Daring, Be Bold
#HowToPissOffDisabledPeople is the latest social media trend
Online technology and social media level the playing field for people with disabilities. Not only does social media provide much needed awareness of the difficulties and barriers #PWD face every day but social media also provide platforms on which #peoplewithdisabilities speak out about their issues of discrimination, accessibility, and inclusion.
Social media is the place to share ideas within the disability community and give voice to all that is too often drowned out in the world. This week I discovered #HowToPissOffDisabledPeople, a fantastic hashtag that draws attention to issues of discrimination against people with disabilities.
This hashtag has been trending over the past five days and has given many people with disabilities an opportunity to talk about how they have been victims of on-going discrimination. What’s even better about this hashtag is that thousands of non-disabled tweeters have retweeted the hashtag suggesting other non-disabled social media followers read the tweets.
Although not at the level of hashtags such as #StormyDaniels or #MarchForOurLives, the #HowToPissOffDisabledPeople hashtag is trending well. Here are a few examples of tweets with this hashtag:-
“Complete strangers in public say can I pray with/for you?”
“You have considered sterilization, right?”
“Have you tried eating vegan?” (Suggested as a cure for paraplegia.)
“OMG, if what happened to you happened to me I would kill myself.”
“You’re partner must be a saint.”
“You’re too young to be disabled.”
“You’re so brave doing that perfectly normal ordinary thing. What an inspiration.”
And my personal favourite . . . “have you tried rubbing castor oil clockwise on your stomach during the waxing quarter moon? It helped my sister’s husband’s brother’s hamster’s mother who has a condition completely unrelated to yours.”
Sometimes what people with disabilities need most is a powerful sense of humour.
If you are on Twitter please check out the hashtag #HowToPissOffDisabledPeople to see for yourself how unconscious bias plays out in the non-disabled community. You’ll find me @markwafer.
Be direct. Be daring. Be bold.
ABLEISM – defined as discrimination in favour of so called typically abled people , it is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and inferior to the non-disabled
My disability bullshit meter is today at Defcon One.
Oh what a week it has been. Actress Gal Gadot started it off with a well meaning but awful tribute to Stephen Hawking by tweeting the following.
This was followed up by many tweets by the disability community explaining to Gadot that her words were unacceptable.
This in turn brought out the self-righteous and sanctimonious on twitter who defended Gadot but also by suggestion Ableism is simply ones self being sensitive and/or being too politically correct
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Some well known advocate/activists had to shut down their feed for the day due to the outrageous push back on social media.
Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 21, a motor neuron disease that eventually required him to use a wheelchair . Several disability rights activists used twitter and other forms of social media to explain why Gadot’s comments were so problematic noting that disabilities shouldn’t be viewed as life inhibiting circumstances that people will be freed of upon death.
However, as the days went on it got worse, with comments on social media from Hollywood, star athletes and other celebrities posting comments such as “trapped in his body but his mind was free”, “his genius almost normalizes his disability”, “a genius despite his disability” .
Even main stream media took the bait and acted poorly with one British tabloid having perhaps the most shocking front page headline of all managing to get every piece of ableism possible into one headline.
To be clear, Dr. Hawking’s wheelchair provided him with freedom. The chair WAS his freedom. His disability was, of course, part of who he was but it did not define him.
Millions of wheelchair users around the world saw these headlines and comments on social media and, without question, their hearts sank as they saw and felt, once again, that they are relegated to a sub-section of humankind, not worthy and a crushing assault on their confidence and self worth. Imagine being told that the only way they could be free was to die.
If you don’t get it, you’re privileged. If anyone in the non-disabled community disagrees with ableism, they are privileged.
People with disabilities are not “confined” to wheelchairs, they are not “bound” to wheelchairs, they just happen to have a disability that requires them to be a wheelchair user. The wheelchair is totally liberating.
For the same reason I am not hearing impaired, I am deaf. The only time I am impaired is after seven beers.
Ableism, now you know.
Godspeed Dr. Hawking and let’s hope there isn’t only a stairway to heaven.
Be DIRECT, be DARING, be BOLD.