“Sheltered workshops present a significant systemic barrier to inclusion, so we are advocating that those who are not yet receiving adult Developmental Services be supported differently, and that those currently in segregated situations receive the planning and supports they need to make a successful transition to inclusive environments. LiveWorkPlay is here not only to assist in identifying this challenge, but to work with others and be a part of the solution. This is not about padlocks on the door. It is about a respectful person-centred process of transition.”
For the past week LiveWorkPlay has engaged in an active public debate about sheltered workshops and other programmatic environments where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unnaturally separated from other citizens. This is not the first time LiveWorkPlay has shared public views about issues of segregation or long-term work placement environments that pay less than minimum wage, but this is certainly the first time that the issue has generated headlining national media attention.
As our Co-Leader and Director of Communications, Keenan Wellar has been quoted in news articles, co-authored an Ottawa Citizen op-ed, discussed the issue on CBC radio, and has engaged many individuals and organizations in discussions through social media. At this time the Board of Directors also wishes to clarify the LiveWorkPlay position on this issue, and how we came to believe in the need for change.
Arrangements where people with intellectual disabilities are paid at less than minimum wage is a concern that we have identified many times, and in particular in 2010-2011 when we worked with our staff and membership to revise our mission, vision, and values. We did so in consideration not only of our own organizational evolution, but also looking closely at provincial, national, and international trends, research, and outcomes.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also offered important guidance, as it was constructed thanks to a remarkable collaborative of advocates, organizations, and individuals with disabilities that brought to bear an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge and experience. We also relied on reports and research from the Canadian Association for Community Living, an organization that has connections from local associations to international bodies worldwide.
The results of this work were presented at our Annual General Meeting in 2011. It was a sometimes raucous but decidedly positive evening where we adopted, among other important guiding statements, the following value related to employment:
With respect to paid work at minimum wage or better, short-term unpaid work, and volunteer positions, people with intellectual disabilities have the right to the removal of barriers preventing them from experiencing the community on an equal basis with other citizens. ~ “Work Value” adopted by LiveWorkPlay members at AGM 2011.
Since that magical evening in 2011 the body of research on transitioning people with intellectual disabilities from congregated systems environments to more authentic lives in the community has continued to grow. In the state of Vermont, all sheltered programs were closed back in 2002, and very positive information is continuing to build as a result of the redirection of resources from segregation to inclusive community outcomes. Please note that a key to these findings is that the community is benefiting. It is not a charitable act toward labelled persons.
The report of the 2013 Federal Panel on Labour Market Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities also offers important guidance. Although national in focus with few mentions of specific disability populations such as people with intellectual disabilities, the report’s key finding that “hiring people with disabilities is good business” definitely applies to LiveWorkPlay members! In addition, the report helps us understand the seriousness the situation. One of the panel members, Mark Wafer, has publicly championed the benefits of hiring people with intellectual disabilities. Again, not as an act of charity, but because they make great employees that benefit the bottom line.
The harsh reality for people with intellectual disabilities in Ottawa and throughout Canada is they face very high rates of unemployment, usually in the range of 75%. There are many reasons for this. People with intellectual disabilities have been largely denied the possibility of paid employment in community due to false assumptions and myths about their abilities and value. They have also been deliberately channelled into segregated activities that have denied them of any opportunity to explore paid work as a viable option.
It is shocking news for some Canadians to learn that there are special exemptions to provincial labour codes that make it possible for people with intellectual disabilities to work for less than the established minimum wage. This commonly takes the form of what is known as a “sheltered workshop” which is a place with work-like activity where non-disabled staff are paid full wages to supervise the work of people with intellectual disabilities. The participants toil for “stipends” or honorariums that are typically in a range as low as $1 per hour.
Some have argued that the money is not important because the workshop offers people “a place to go” and that some workshop participants do not even know the difference between $1 and $10. In the LiveWorkPlay experience, people of all disability labels do know the difference, once they actually get a chance to live it. But in the final analysis, it should not matter. The rest of us know that real work for real pay is a fair expectation.
In addition to sheltered workshops, we have come across many other work-like arrangements, often set up with the best of intentions. This includes people with intellectual disabilities “volunteering” in for-profit settings, perhaps as an outcome of a high school placement that simply continued on after the individual graduated.
LiveWorkPlay opposes such arrangements. Another way of looking at it: we support employment for people with intellectual disabilities provided it is done in a way that would not be considered a violation of the rights of a person who does not have a disability.
We are not opposed to training programs, co-op placements, or short-term wage subsidies in workplaces. But these must be of a nature that is not exclusive to people with intellectual disabilities and that is proven to support their success rather than reinforce perceived deficits.
Similarly, we are huge fans of volunteerism. But volunteering is about helping out with a voluntary agency – like a non-profit organization or community group – alongside other volunteers, who may or may not have disabilities. It is not about evading the payment of wages. It also should not be organized such that people with disabilities have their own “volunteer program” that separates them from other community volunteers.
In the current situation in Ottawa the Board of Directors wishes to make clear that the goal is not “closing workshops.” The goal is for each and every individual with an intellectual disability to receive the person-centred and assets-based supports they need to enjoy the community on an equal basis with other citizens.
Sheltered workshops present a significant systemic barrier to inclusion, so we are advocating that those who are not yet receiving adult Developmental Services be supported differently, and that those currently in segregated situations receive the planning and supports they need to make a successful transition to inclusive environments. LiveWorkPlay is here not only to assist in identifying this challenge, but to work with others and be a part of the solution. This is not about padlocks on the door. It is about a respectful person-centred process of transition.
Chair, Board of Directors