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The Beginning of the End of “Special People, Special Places” Human Rights Complaints are Symptom of Wider Problem

In response to the sheltered workshop controversy in Ottawa the LiveWorkPlay Board of Directors issued an official statement on March 27 that included the following:

Are the citizens of Ontario ready to fully commit to the process of supporting people with intellectual disabilities to live their lives as fully included members of society?

“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.”

On July 15, a pending hearing before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal was made public in The Sarnia Journal. Kris McCormick, 38, is paid 0.46 an hour in the Wawanosh Enterprises workshop operated by Community Living Sarnia-Lambton.

The case is about Mr. McCormick, but it’s clearly about much more. It goes to the heart of the Transformation of Developmental Services that currently has most of the right words, but has yet to fully adopt the right deeds. Change is happening, but it remains more of a fringe activity operating with the label of “innovative services” rather than what is simply expected as a matter of course.

The situation at Wawanosh Enterprises or countless others just like it across the province cannot be fixed by simply increasing the pay. First of all, it’s not financially sustainable. It’s not authentic employment. The revenues don’t exist to pay the expenses of minimum wage or better. Secondly, pointing out that it is not a real job but rather a “day supports program” (as stated in the Journal article) doesn’t fix the problem either. That’s a part of the problem.

Mindy Noble, a lawyer with the Human Rights Legal Support Centre, says McCormick is seeking $25,000 in compensation for harm done to his dignity, as well as minimum wage going forward at Wawanosh for himself and his co-workers.

The harm being done to the dignity of people with intellectual disabilities who are one of the few remaining citizen populations that are congregated and segregated as “special people in special places” could only be partially corrected by paying them minimum wage or better.

In case you aren’t reading the original article, it needs to be made clear that no one, including Mr. McCormick, is accusing Community Living Sarnia-Lambton of not caring about people with intellectual disabilities, that the staff are not dedicated, or that the Wawanosh Enterprises workshop is not being operated in a quality manner. It may well be that it is an exemplary sheltered workshop. Past complaints from participants may have been rare or non-existent. The issue is much bigger than the particulars of the program. The issue is the outcome of programmatic lives, which do indeed offend principles of personal dignity. Whatever the result from this Tribunal action, we need to address this problem across Ontario and across the country.

The known answer of course is to reject this segregated and stigmatizing model (which was created in the 1970s at a time when it was a big improvement as compared to life in mass institutions) and for Ontario to invest fully in person-centred, assets-based, community-focused supports.

Fancy lingo? Not really. It means people with intellectual disabilities are individual human beings, not objects to be evaluated and sorted into clumps corresponding to their “adaptive skill levels” where they spend their lives in work-like or social-like situations in systemic agency settings. It means we look at each of those individuals and get to know what they have to offer as a gift to the world, an opportunity provided to most other citizens without questioning that they can and should contribute. Lastly, we fund the delivery of outcomes that are authentically based in the community: homes, jobs, social, and recreational activity alongside other citizens in venues that are not owned and operated by Developmental Services agencies. We don’t focus solely on the perfunctory aspects of being included, we support real belonging.

This is the beginning of the end of special people in special places, but is truly just the beginning of establishing effective government-funded supports necessary to delivering on those progressive yet overdue outcomes.

The transition will not be easy but it is morally required of all of us. This is not the first time and will not be the last time that a court is asked to provide an opinion. There is zero chance that court opinions will look more kindly upon sheltered workshops and day programs going forward. So one way or another, change is coming.

We should look to other examples like Vermont where they did not wait for a court to tell them to do the right thing, they simply went ahead and did it. It is obviously going to be much better for all if the change is made in advance, instead of being forced to do it with external timelines and funding requirements that will need to be created as a reaction instead of as a thoughtful planning endeavour.

So what do you say Ontario? Shall we get to work on this?