I couldn’t decide whether to weep with rage or despair over the Toronto Star’s recent series on sheltered workshops. This week, the headlines crowed that “the Star gets action” because Minister of Community and Social Services Helena Jaczek promised that she would close sheltered workshops permanently. This week, Ministry official Barbara Simmons said that change will unfold “one individual at a time,” as workshops are gradually replaced by agencies that find jobs, volunteer work and other activities in the community. “No one will be left without services, she promised.”
The Star cited examples of US jurisdictions like Vermont which closed workshops some time ago. The results? The Institute for Community Inclusion (UCEDD) found that in 2012, 25% of people with cognitive disabilities in Vermont were employed for an average of 16 hours per week. (Non-disabled people work 38 hours.)
What do those adults do the rest of the time (while their parents go to work)? They use “Medicaid waivers” to pay for services or they attend Adult Day programs – those “segregated” places the Star abhors. Once the last Vermont workshop closed, it took 3 years for 80% of the remaining clients to find mostly part-time work. Today, 35% of intellectually disabled people in Vermont live below the poverty line.
Closing doors doesn’t constitute action. A 2011 WHO report recommends that governments provide incentives and support for individuals with disabilities to seek employment and for employers to hire them. It argues for vocational guidance, training and employment services that are accessible to persons with disabilities—the same kinds of programs that the Star slammed last week.
Here’s an idea! Maybe the Ontario government could offer direct employment to this “fantastic population” in the provincially-funded civil service, school boards, and hospitals and health organizations. And since the Star “got action” maybe they will live up to their Atkinson Principles and “take action” to actively recruit and hire people with intellectual disabilities to join the Star Media empire.
Luckily for Maddie, the doors of Common Ground won’t close any time soon. Executive Director, Jennifer Hope, managed to get an “Employment” designation in the Ministry’s lists for their social enterprises. But Common Ground is exactly the kind of agency the Star targeted in its series.
Maddie’s workplace is “sheltered” by job coaches who teach skills and organize the catering business that partly sustains the program. Maddie earns a share of the profits—slave wages according the Star. But if she earned more, she would lose her Ontario Disability Support allowance—not in itself a living wage. It’s “segregated” (= Bad to the Star). To Maddie that means she works alongside peers who are true friends, not just co-workers who are polite to her. (Interesting that no one ever complains when gifted kids are segregated.)
Of course we hope that Maddie will one day find competitive employment. She is well-trained as a prep cook and has been actively looking for restaurant work with a job coach for four months. There are very few employers like the many Tim Horton’s franchise owners who are always cited as the better option by Ministry people and The Star.
When 80% of beds in psychiatric hospitals were closed in the 1950s and 1960s, it took nearly twenty years for the powers-that-be to realize that the resulting disaster could have been prevented if they had invested in community services first. Here we go again.