The Demise of the Sheltered Workshop Model

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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

 

Inclusion in The Sunshine State

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Miami, Florida has more car washes than most other States. There are numerous variations, from coin-operated, full-service and even those with restaurants and entertainment. But one full-service car wash stands out in this competitive landscape, Rising Tide Car Wash in Margate, a suburb of Miami.

Rising Tide has two locations. What makes this business different to all other car washes in the State is that owner and co-founder Tom D’eri decided from day one in 2012 to be a fully inclusive employer. Rising Tides two locations employ 50-60 workers, of those about 40 are on the Autism spectrum.

I recently had the chance to visit with Tom and his crew at one of their locations while on a visit to Miami. Apart from the fact that Rising Tide is probably the cleanest and brightest car wash I have seen, the enthusiasm of the workers, their desire to be perfectionists and their productivity was obvious without having to look at data or sales/transaction scores. Customers love coming back to Rising Tide. They know their pride and joy will be cleaned one way only, with perfection. Apart from that, more than half of those customers are directly effected by disability, they either have one or they have a loved one at home with a disability. In Canada that number is 53%. This, along with an excellent product is what brings Rising Tides customers back again and again.

The average customer service index for a car wash in Florida is typically at 68%. Anything over that means the business is exceeding standards. At Rising Tide, that number is 91%. Once again, proof that there are clear economic benefits from being inclusive.

Although, Tom is well aware of the economic benefits of inclusion. Lower turnover, higher productivity, safer workforce and more. His passion is based more on how inclusion shapes the skills of his non-disabled workers. He simply has a better management team. This is a response I hear often from companies that have built capacity with workers who have a disability. Tom’s managers and non-disabled workers have become better people managers; they see employer engagement through a completely different lens than they might have in the past.

My visit to Rising Tide coincided with the tragic school shooting two days earlier only blocks from the car wash. Four of Tom’s workers were in that school and escaped without harm but some of their classmates didn’t. These workers would not take time off and insisted on working their shift despite the very recent events. This shows once again how incredibly important work is to people with disabilities, including those who are very challenged. Work should always be expected as young people grow up, mom and dad work and so do older siblings so the discussion has to be focused on the fact that the child with disabilities will work also.

Tom does have some concerns with State and Federal laws and policies that financially hurt pwd’s as they come off of benefits and gain meaningful and competitively paid salaries. Apparently the clawbacks and excess income tax is an issue in Florida as much as it is in all Canadian Provinces. Bill C-395 will challenge the Provinces on this as I mentioned in my last blog posting.

When you are in the Miami area, visit Rising Tide and say hello to Tom and his fantastic team. It will make your day and your car will shine like it did when you first bought it.

Here is a short video on Rising Tide.

While in Miami I decided to pay a visit to a different initiative. This one is “Piece of Cake Bakers”, a training program operated by Robin Matusow a native Miamian. Robin created this program for students graduating from high school who have disabilities and no marketable skills. Typically Florida school boards do not provide hands on training for any sort of skills during high school for students with cognitive disabilities. This means there is a hard stop upon graduation. This is not a Florida only problem. We have similar issues at home.

This program is designed to enable students to gain basic industry skills. Students participate in employment skills training and vocational counseling. Most importantly, there is a focus on work related behaviours which is missing In The school system both in Florida and in Canada.

What makes Piece of Cake different to other training programs is that Robin has partnered with the department of education in Miami-Dade County to ensure graduates of the bakers training program receive a diploma from the department of education that lists the skills this individual has attained. This is far more powerful to an employer than a certificate from a local training program.

Here is a video from Piece of Cake

While speaking of Florida and the awful events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas

high school , it’s important for all of us to understand that mental illness and Autism is NOT the cause of or a contributing factor to the shooting epidemic in the United States. Not only has President Trump insisted that this is a mental health epidemic, the shooters lawyers have blamed the shooting on Autism. This is a complete disgrace because report after report has shown that neither condition is ever a causal ingredient to mass shootings.

The problem is and only is the prevalence of guns and ammunition, the culture of believing the second amendment is sacrosanct and an irrational fear that everyone is in imminent danger.

The answer to the problem is gun control and not a further increase in the stigma of mental health or further alienating those with Autism. The problem with addressing this issue rests with Americas political leaders including the President of the United Stares.

President Trump however received over $30m in campaign donations from the NRA.

That’s the problem right there. Real, courageous leadership vs bought leadership.