The Demise of the Sheltered Workshop Model

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 11.08.39 AM.png

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

 

#HowToPissOffDisabledPeople

Screen Shot 2018-03-25 at 6.30.02 PM

#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.

 

Dr. Stephen Hawking and Ableism – How the Passing of a Genius Opened a Floodgate of Well-meaning but Poorly Worded Tributes

 

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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.21.52 PM.png

This was followed up by many tweets by the disability community explaining to Gadot that her words were unacceptable.

Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.23.24 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.23.32 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.23.43 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.24.06 PMScreen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.24.12 PM

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.

Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 5.30.33 PM