End of Ontario's sheltered workshops program drawing closer

Photo: flickr/NCDOTcommunications

All sheltered workshops in Ontario could stop operating in 2018.

The workshops, typically run by not-for-profit organizations funded by the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS), provide work for people who struggle to find jobs, often adults who have developmental disabilities. Originally, they were created to be temporary places where people would learn job skills.

Jobs include packaging, assembling products and clerical duties, like stuffing newspaper fliers. Workers were paid a stipend, sometimes only a few dollars an hour. Many people have worked at them for decades, for most of their lives. The ministry announced in 2015 it would stop funding the workshops, and would work with agencies to transition away from them.

Sheltered workshops are exempt from Ontario's Employment Standards Act (ESA). This means they don't need to follow employment laws, including minimum wage. Last month, Ontario passed the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act. It removed this exemption from the ESA. As of January 1, 2019, sheltered workshops will no longer be exempt from employment standards. Minimum wage will be $15 an hour then.  

This law, introduced by the Ministry of Labour, "becomes the hammer that says 'There has to be a change. It has to be sooner rather than later,'" said Joe Dale, executive director of the Ontario Disability Employment Network (ODEN). The organization supports the hiring of people with disabilities in the competitive job market and has helped many agencies create plans to move away from sheltered workshops.

In a statement to rabble, the MCSS said it will work with agencies to ensure the transition away from sheltered workshops is complete by January 1, 2019. All people in sheltered workshops must be in other employment or other programs by this time, the ministry said.

It added that there were approximately 75 sheltered workshops running in Ontario in 2015 when the government announced it would stop funding them. As of December 2017, 35 agencies were still operating workshops.

The transition from sheltered workshops began long before the 2015 closure announcement, or changes to provincial employment law. Some agencies had closed them prior to this.

"The writing was on the wall," said Chris Beesley, CEO of Community Living Ontario. The agency passed a resolution 30 years ago saying it wanted the sheltered workshops closed, even though it had helped create them. The workshops were only meant to be temporary, he said. But over time, families began to see them as a safe place for their children to learn skills and build relationships outside of the family home.

The goal is making sure everyone can move away from sheltered workshops and into something that suits their needs, whether some amount of paid employment, volunteer work or recreational activities, he said.

"Too many people worked in sheltered workshops for no reason at all. They shouldn't have been there," said Richard Ruston, president of People First of Ontario, another organization that's been fighting to close the workshops for years.

Ruston has a developmental disability and worked in a sheltered workshop as a janitor in Windsor from 1989 to 1991. It has since closed. He graduated from high school at age 21, unable to read or write, and began working in the workshop not long after. At the time, a psychologist said a workshop would be a better place for him to work. But he didn't want to work there, he said.

Ruston was "not a happy camper" when he heard the recommendation, he recalled. "I wanted a real job, making real money like everyone else, at least minimum wage." He was paid every two weeks, for a total of about $50 a month.

He had a couple jobs after leaving the workshop. A Community Living worker helped him find one; the other he secured on his own. He lives on his own now. His reading and writing have improved -- he puts his skills at about a Grade 4 level. He volunteers regularly and advises organizations on how to better serve people with disabilities.

"Times have changed from sheltered workshops," Ruston said. "It's time to face the reality that they're not needed any more. People need to live in their communities and be part of their communities."

Community inclusion won't mean work for everyone

Others argue sheltered workshops can help people stay in the community. Families worry about what the closing of sheltered workshops means for people who are unable to have competitive jobs because of their developmental disabilities.

Kate Harper is concerned about how the closing of sheltered workshops in Guelph and Fergus has affected several people in the community, including her older sister, Susan. Susan, 60, is "not the poster child for this new program of going out into the world and being an independent employee," said Kate Harper. Her intellectual development is that of a five or six-year-old. She likes to play with dolls and beads; she needs to be reminded to wash her hands or look both ways before she crosses the road. Susan has no behavioural problems and has great social skills, but she'll never be able to live independently, her sister said.

Susan Harper used to spend about half her time each week volunteering in the community. She also spent some time each week working at a sheltered workshop.

Kate Harper said many families were glad the sheltered workshops gave their family members something safe to do during the day, adding her sister loved the work she did.

But now that workshop has closed, and Harper says families were not fully informed about changes to day programs. She's heard from several parents who say their children are lonely and depressed because their schedule has changed and they can't see their friends as often.  Ruston said he's heard about people who have lost social networks because of the closures.

Not all agency leaders realize how "traumatic" closing the workshops is, said Harper. Susan and her colleagues "don't have the intellect, but socially and emotionally, they are the most loving, caring people. The people at the head have no idea how this is emotionally affecting the clients," she said.

Beesley said individual Community Living organizations are responsible to create their own plans about how they will transition away from sheltered workshops. They send those plans to the ministry, not to Community Living Ontario. Each organization does things differently, he said, and it's unfortunate that in some places plans were made without properly consulting families.

"That's not the ideal way to do it to the extent that people become scared or without the support that they're used to having," he said. "Nobody should become the victim of our good intentions" or be harmed because of them, Beesley said.

Beesley was quick to describe how people with developmental disabilities can obtain gainful employment, even if this means they'll need a paid support worker or peer mentors to help them on the job. But he said people who have worked at sheltered workshops for decades may not be interested in finding employment. Some people can't express a desire to work, so the focus needs to be on helping them do more of what they like to do.

Implementing these ideas is easier said than done

There are also some employers who still hesitate to hire people who have disabilities.

"If someone really wants to work, the barrier isn't so much them as it is the rest of us," said Beesley. "I think everybody has some value, and something to contribute. It's finding the right fit for that person."

Kate Harper said she doubts people would be willing to change her sister's Depends disposable underwear at a job site, or know how to respond when Susan has a seizure. Now, her sister participates in other programs in the community, but she wasn't given an option about what she'd like to do, she said.

"I see it as a forced inclusion," Harper said. "Nobody asked my family if my sister would be OK with 100 per cent out in the community instead of her regular 50 per cent."

Some government changes -- like removing exemptions to sheltered workshops --  may be seen as helping those who have developmental disabilities. But lack of government funding and rules in social assistance programs can create more barriers.

Many people who have developmental disabilities receive monthly support from the Ontario Disability Support Plan (ODSP). But not all recipients understand how the program works. A person who receives ODSP can earn $200 a month without losing any financial support from the government. They also receive some additional money to cover work expenses. But, the government deducts 50 cents from every dollar they earn after $200 a month. For example, if somebody earns $500 a month, they are allowed to keep the first $200 without penalty. After that, their ODSP benefit for that month is reduced by $150. Some people say people who receive ODSP are still better off if they work, regardless of the reductions in social assistance, partly because ODSP provides some medical and dental coverage. Others say this creates a system of dependency and discourages people from finding sustainable, paid work. Not all people who receive social assistance understand the rules.

Beesley said he's also concerned about how other changes to the Employment Standards Act, like the increases to minimum wage, as well as increases to vacation pay and workers' benefits, will impact agencies who work with people who have developmental agencies. Government funding for these agencies isn't increasing, he added. It could also harm families who hire people to work with their family members, and could be in an employee-employer relationship. There are no exemptions for the developmental services sector, he said.

Beesley said organizations that support people with developmental disabilities agree with the need for people to have stable, full-time work and not be reliant on contracts or part-time jobs. But the government needs to increase funding so they can provide stable jobs in this field.

Most people don't think of how changes to employment standards impact those who have developmental disabilities, he said.

"In terms of the public discourse, we're not on the radar," Beesley said.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: flickr/NCDOTcommunications

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