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


Why the Word “Disability” Matters

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People First Language is described by Wikipedia as ‘a type of linguistic description in English to avoid perceived and subconscious dehumanizations when discussing people with disabilities’. It is now an accepted type of disability etiquette.

Person First Language has become the norm.  Instead of saying “disabled person”, the supposed correct lexicon is “person with a disability”. Instead of “deaf guy”, it’s a “man with a hearing disability”.

Problem is, that’s all bullshit.

Person First Language was created by those who do not have disabilities. It was created by workers in the disability field, employees of agencies, and indeed, moms and dads who thought it would be a better way to describe their children’s disability. As a result however they removed a vitally important piece of that individuals psyche. It also made that individual less. It reduced the individuals true identity.

Few of us with disabilities actually identify only as disabled. We are doctors, lawyers, retail workers, politicians and more. However we have a disability and although the disability doesn’t define us it does define an important part of who we are.

Person First Language morphed into something even more insidious. Changing the word “disability” into a myriad of cringe-worthy descriptions. “Differently abled” and my personal favourite, “handi-capable”. These descriptions serve one purpose, to help the non-disabled individual feel better about themselves while talking about those with disabilities

The word “disabled” isn’t a negative description. It is in fact an extremely important word that allows a disabled person to own their disability, it creates confidence and is damn empowering.

Those with disabilities often lack confidence and self esteem. That’s natural. However we make this worse and devalue that individuals worth by changing how we describe them. We also risk the fact that labels stick. Describing someone as handi-capable diminishes that Individuals worth and value to a very low level. You can’t own it and feel empowered when someone describes you with that term. You can’t be seen as a contributor to society with that descriptive terminology.

Person First Language is also responsible for some disability groups needless journey into bizarre descriptive terms within their own disability group. For example, in the deaf community (I am prepared for some backlash here) we have big “D” deaf, small “d” deaf, “oral deaf” , “late deafened” “hard of hearing ” and more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with those descriptions on the condition that the individuals align themselves with it. I find the term “hard of hearing ” ridiculous.  Terry Fox wasn’t hard of walking. He was disabled and he damn well owned it.

I identify as deaf but many in the deaf community argue with me that I am hard of hearing. This is where the problem lies. It’s their insecurity around wording, not mine. I can’t hear shit, I’m deaf plain and simple.

The time has come to take back what is rightfully ours, the word disabled. We identify as we see fit and those who prefer People First Language should carry on. Those without disabilities need to respect an individual’s decision on how they wish to be identified.

For me, I’m deaf and I am disabled. Feels mighty empowering

Say the word and say it loud

Be direct, be daring and be BOLD.

It’s Time To Be Direct . Daring . Bold

Mark Wafer introducing The Opportunities Act – Ottawa, February 5, 2018. 

Welcome to the Inclusion Revolution.

At a time when we are at the threshold of change in the disability world it is imperative that those of us in the advocacy and activism sector push hard. Change is coming in many forms, transportation, housing, education, travel, research and more. Some, of course, with better outcomes than others but the needle is moving in the right direction.

Largely ignored in the past, North America and European countries have enacted policy and legislation directly targeted at the disability community.  Not all of this is working as intended or even helping at all but overall our governments are recognizing that the disability community is a massive, educated, connected force to be reckoned with. Campaigns are under way to change societal attitudes, the gap between so called “us and them” is narrowing ( a term only non disabled people use) but the one area where there is still much work to do is in employment for people with disabilities. Employment being the single most important aspect of any individuals life. With a paycheque one lives a full life, one gets to contribute and one has meaning and purpose in life. It’s about dignity.

Yes, we are well ahead of ten years ago but the statistics show that despite all legislative , National, International and grassroots initiatives the participation rates for people with disabilities in the workplace have not changed in 40 years. It’s difficult to imagine that the same percentage of North Americans with disabilities were working in 1970 as there are today.

As I have said for years the reason for low participation rates is directly related to the attitude of employers. Employers buy into every stereotype imaginable simply as a result of fear of the unknown. Despite the fact more than half of citizens in developed nations are directly affected by disability, these age old stereotypes still exist. These barriers to inclusion in real jobs for real pay are attitudinal. Attitude therefore being the greatest barrier a person with a disability faces when trying to get into the workforce.

The statistics are troubling. StatsCan indicates that 54% of Canadians with disabilities are not working however this data doesn’t include anyone without marketplace attachment. Today there are over 500,000 Canadian graduates from the past five years with disabilities who have never worked a single day. Of those,  270,000 have a post secondary education. Without working at least one day, these individuals are not included in official statistics therefore the real unemployment number, anecdotally is closer to 70%. Comparing this to figures released during the Great Depression, Canada had a 24% unemployment rate in 1933, the peak of the depression. At 70% unemployment today Canadians with disabilities live a perpetual depression.

The challenge for us in the advocacy world is to break down these attitudinal barriers in the private sector. When we changed the narrative about 15 years ago from focusing on the individual to focusing on how a business benefits from inclusion we started to get traction. Today this is the only approach that works. In the past the approach to business was based on legislative compliance and/or a level of altruism. Any agency using that approach today will have zero success.

There is however one other huge challenge. System barriers that have being created over the past decades by our governments, particularly our Provincial governments in Canada. I am referring here to policies that are designed to punish a worker with a disability by taxing them at a higher income tax rate than a non disabled worker doing the exact same job in the same company. It’s hard to imagine that this is the case but it is true for every single Canadian Province. For the most part these are unintended consequences of poor policy or updates and amendments to existing policy without looking at potential road blocks and traps in the system.

There are two main issues. The first is that a person with a disability, receiving income supports from his/her Province has those benefits clawed back when they finally enter the workforce. They bravely rise above the fear of losing that security safety net and beat all odds to land a job, any job and most likely not the one they are educated for. Quite rightly once they begin to earn a regular salary the employment benefits should end but the policies of our Provinces clawback the benefits so dramatically that the worker can be worst off than when they were unemployed. This is especially so for Alberta.

Secondly , a worker ending their history with employment supports would typically require some continued attachment to the system, perhaps in the area of health benefits if the employer doesn’t provide them or if the employers health benefits are inferior to those provided by the Government. Due to this attachment, a worker with a disability could now have an income tax rate higher than a millionaire. This is unfair and draconian yet every Province is guilty of participating in these practices.

There is more. Foolish and absent minded policy can also ruin the employment of those who have exceptional needs or requirements of Government services. My favourite example being a man who a few years ago was working in my business as head of logistics. He worked with us for 11 years and was without question my best employee. He has two significant disabilities one of which required daily medication. In 2013 the Ontario Government approved a new drug that had an increased effectiveness for that condition. The drug cost $5,000 per month and our benefits package would not cover it. The Government did indeed cover the cost but on one condition. My best employee had to resign, go back on Income supports, relinquish his role as a tax payer and become a burden to the system.

As we see more and more employers stepping up and coming forward, realizing that the disability community is a massive untapped labour pool, we can’t lose sight of the fact system wide barriers exist across the country. For that reason I am proud to announce that along with MP Pierre Poilievre, our Shadow cabinet Finance Critic we have launched the Opportunities Act.

This act , when legislated will provide guidance and expectations to the Provinces in the area of taxation and clawbacks. Over a five year period the goal will be even and fair taxation and a fairer clawback of employment benefits. No longer will Canadians with disabilities have to fear that if they finally get a job that they will be financially worse off. Hard work will be rewarded just as it is for workers without disabilities.

The Act was tabled yesterday in the House of Commons and will receive its first reading in March. In all Provinces, social service spending is paid for by the Federal Government through Federal/Provincial transfer payments. Although it is never the intention of the Federal Government to micromanage Provincial government regulations, the Federal  Government  can and should set guidelines and expected outcomes as well as where necessary , call out poor behaviour and poor rules and regulations that hurt Canadians with disabilities.

Yes change is coming and it is up to all of us to keep pushing. The conversations are now mainstream, it’s time to be direct, daring and Bold.

– Mark Wafer