From exploitation to employment: Undoing Canada's sheltered workshop system

Photo: flickr/NCDOTcommunications

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Thousands of intellectually disabled adults in Canada are earning less than $2 an hour under sheltered workshop programs.

In part one of her investigation, rabble labour reporter Teuila Fuatai looks at what life is like for program participants.

Sheltered workshops: The ins and outs

For more than 20 years, Kevin Possamai and Warren Diotte were among the thousands of intellectually disabled Canadian adults being paid pennies on the hour for participating in sheltered workshop programs.

The Sault Ste Marie residents, now 42 and 59 respectively, spent their days performing tasks like lawn maintenance, cleaning and snow shovelling for a small stipend equalling about 70 cents an hour.

The types of programs they participated in -- which continue throughout Canada today and currently involve an estimated 40,000 to 45,000 intellectually disabled adults -- have been widely criticized as exploitative and segregationist.

Originally set up after WWI to assist injured veterans back into the labour force, sheltered workshops or day programs have taken on a significantly different role in the past 40 years -- primarily as organizations providing workplace skills to intellectually disabled adults.

While they were intended to be only temporary, many participants -- like Possamai and Diotte -- end up spending most of their adult lives in the programs.

The minimal stipend amount also meant businesses that contracted the programs had access to significantly cheap labour.

Possamai was part of this for 20 years. He and his support worker Cindy Gilmar, who has been working with him for 10 years, began the transition out of sheltered employment in July.

"I did cutting grass, raking up leaves…shovelling and sweeping at the parking lot," Possamai said of the workshop.

While he often made less than $5 a day, he enjoyed the work. 

"I had friends [there] -- it was good," he said.

Moving away proved difficult.

"We started easing off on things in July," Gilmar said.

"By September it was totally done and we were working with Community Support."

Possamai now spends between 10 and 25 hours a week volunteering at a soup kitchen and the St Vincent's men's shelter.

Volunteering has helped him become more independent, Gilmar said.

"St Vincent's are really good -- he can go on the bus there, stay for an hour and then I'll come.

"His family really like what he's been doing. He's also doing swimming and walking and has been keeping up with his health."

Life for Diotte also changed significantly after leaving sheltered employment.

The hockey fan has been earning minimum wage for about two years after securing paid employment with Soo Minor Baseball. Six months ago, he also took a second job at Canadian Tire.

Prior to this, he spent 30 years with the Soogoma Industries sheltered workshop program. The program ceased operating in September after a year of transitioning participants into appropriate jobs or volunteer work.

Diotte, who saved up to buy a scooter with his job earnings, found it particularly difficult to adjust to being away from his friends at the workshop.

"Even when Warren was working at the ball field and the workshop was still open, he would stop by the shop every morning before he went to work," Mike Hall, Diotte's support worker of 20 years, recalled.

These types of feelings were pretty typical, he said.

"It was hard for most of the guys at the workshop because that's the only thing they've ever known. It was more of a social thing that they enjoyed."

Despite this, moving into the labour force had been a huge success for Doigte.

"I think the greatest thing you notice is when you see him at work he's always got a smile on his face," Hall said.

"He's interacting with people and he's meeting new people everyday in the job that he's doing."

The purchase of his scooter has also given Diotte a lot of independence.

He uses it to get to work each day, and can get across town to his Special Olympic baseball matches on his own, Hall said.

A better system

Michael Bach, executive vice president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, said workshop programs prevent many intellectually disabled adults from participating fully in society.

Providers of the workshops are labelled as community agencies and are contracted by the provincial government. The federal government has also been involved in funding workshop programs.

Exemptions in provincial labour laws, which allow providers to pay an honorarium or stipend instead of a competitive wage, stemmed from the assumption that "if you've got a disability, primarily an intellectual disability, you're not going to be able to be as economically productive," Bach said.

This is simply not true, and many intellectually disabled workers like Diotte work successfully in the labour market, he said.

Workplace research also shows intellectually disabled individuals are often more loyal, reliable and have lower rates of absenteeism compared to other workers.

Furthermore, sheltered workshop programs encourage segregated labour markets based on disability, Bach said.

They are a "stop-gap measure" that fails to address the lack of support services available to families with intellectually disabled sons and daughters.

"People enter them on the basis that…they are getting vocational training." 

But instead of transitioning into the work force, many adults spend decades in the programs.

"We haven't put in place the labour market initiatives that are needed so people can transition from school, to post-secondary education, training and onto the labour market," Bach said.

A policy decision implementing an "employment-first policy framework" which makes entrance into the labour force for disabled individuals the norm has to occur within the next two to three years at senior provincial government level.

"One of the big problems is that young people with disabilities aren't getting co-op placements or work placements in high school because the expectation is they're not going on to the labour market."

This has to be reversed, with input and participation required from groups in the education sector, the labour market and post-secondary training.

All provincial governments must also commit to preventing further admissions to these programs, Bach said.

The Ontario government signalled last year it was committed to phasing out the workshops, however a plan detailing how it proposed to do this has not been released.

 

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Warren Diotte's name and has been updated with the correct spelling. 

Teuila Fuatai is a recent transplant to Canada from Auckland, New Zealand. She settled in Toronto in September following a five-month travel stint around the United States. In New Zealand, she worked as a general news reporter for the New Zealand Herald and APNZ News Service for four years after studying accounting, communication and politics at the University of Otago. As a student, she had her own radio show on the local university station and wrote for the student magazine. She is rabble's labour beat reporter this year.

Photo: flickr/NCDOTcommunications

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