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

 

Increased Employment Statistics for People with Disabilities

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The numbers are in for 2016 and it’s good news. More Americans with disabilities are working today than at any time in the past.

Canadian participation rates are increasing too but we do not yet have statistical ratings currently used by the US government. We should have one, but a ranking system would jolt those Provinces who lag behind to do more around inclusion.

Anecdotally however we know more Canadians with disabilities are at work in real jobs for real pay compared to only two years ago. The attitudes of many employers have changed. Some large corporations such as TD Bank, RBC, Sodexo, Loblaws and others see inclusion as part of their cultural strategy. This is what we have been preaching for years and the results show evidence of a shift in thinking.

SMB’s are also jumping on the inclusion bandwagon. Some “get it” and see the obvious economic benefits while others see the disability community as a huge untapped labour force in areas where few workers exist. There are many such areas across Canada where labour shortages are dire.

There are, however, too many top brands in Canada who are either still in the infancy stage of Inclusion or it’s not on their radar at all. Some of those names would surprise you, as every Canadian knows them. It is difficult to imagine that in 2018 this would be the case.  Those companies are in trouble; brand culture that isn’t inclusive is a cultural journey to oblivion. Those brands will cease to exist unless they embrace real inclusion.  Some may scoff at such a comment but let me be clear, any corporation not embracing inclusion of people with disabilities in real jobs for real pay, not including workers with disabilities in management and executive roles and failing to include individuals with disabilities on board of director positions will struggle to remain competitive and for some, will fail completely.

While we wait for the Federal Accessibility Act, Ontario continues down its path of creating one good piece of legislation that helps people with disabilities only to enact another piece of legislation that does the exact opposite. Perhaps that’s a lack of communication or it’s a case of pandering for votes, I will leave that up to you to decide.

Meanwhile the US is reporting remarkable numbers. I have been hard on the US government for a long time now so I am happy to provide props where props are due. The employment gap in the US is narrowing (dis/non dis employment) meaning some States are becoming more inclusive.

340,000 more Americans with disabilities found work in 2016. That’s up from 87,000 in 2015. This is transformational change. Companies like JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi, SAP, EY, UPS, IBM, Starbucks and Walgreens lead the way in various forms with Walgreens of course being the clear champion of inclusion world wide. Others are coming along such as Microsoft, Cisco and McDonalds, slowly at the moment but gathering momentum.

States and Provinces can’t make jobs appear but each jurisdiction is responsible for ensuring that employment for workers with disabilities is made easier by removing systemic barriers most often found within government itself.

North Dakota once again leads the way with 54% of its citizens of working age with disabilities, in the workforce. Once again however West Virginia is last with only 27.4% of its people with disabilities working.  Overall the employment gap is 35% vs 77% for non-disabled. Still awful but better that previous years.

Rounding out the top ten States with employment at over 40% for the disability community is South Dakota, Minnesota, Alaska, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Iowa and Kansas.

Much of this change has come about because of the hard work of organizations such as Employment first and school to work transitional programs. These programs of transition and training are seeing a 78% success rate in landing real jobs for real pay. There are now 300 such programs in 46 States.

Although this is transformational, there are still intersectional gaps that the US has to address such as race. African Americans with disabilities have a much lower employment rate at only 27% and Hispanics also are lower than average. Canada faces its own intersectional issue, our indigenous people with disabilities have employment prospects much lower than the norm.

See the report for yourself and see where your State ranked. If you are at the top, well done and keep pushing. If your State has work to do, be DIRECT, DARING and BOLD.