Workshops for Disabled ‘Antiquated,’ Says Advocate

By David Hutton, Postmedia News December 23, 2010

A national advocate for the disabled on Thursday called for an end to sheltered workshops after it was revealed that a Saskatchewan non-profit group pays a stipend of $150 a month for work on a recycling sorting line.

SASKATOON — A national advocacy organization is calling on Saskatchewan to move away from sheltered workshops for people with disabilities, saying the practice has “outlived its usefulness.”

But local organizations defend the workshops — sometimes grouped alongside activity centres or rehabilitation centres — saying despite the lofty goals of
integration, the developmentally disabled would be left behind and would struggle to find meaningful work in a competitive workforce if the non-profits
ever closed.

Michael Bach, the executive vice-president of the Canadian Association for Community Living, said the workshops, where people with disabilities participate in day programming and work for non-profit organizations, are a product of “custodial” approaches to disability.

“There’s no question it’s an antiquated model,” Bach said. “People with intellectual disabilities should not be basically doing labour and earning $4 to
$5 a day. More and more people are recognizing that. The thing is to figure out how to transition and to move beyond that model.”

The organization and its local and provincial counterparts has been lobbying since the early 1980s to move away from sheltered workshops across the country in favour of supported and paid employment.

Local non-profit Cosmopolitan Industries’ practice of paying a monthly stipend of $150 or less to people with severe cognitive disabilities to work on a
recycling sorting line was questioned by some city councillors this week.

There are dozens of other sheltered workshop organizations in the province, where people with intellectually disabilities are given work and sometimes paid a stipend above social assistance, according to the province.

The organizations, which have to be non-profits, are exempt from a section of the labour act requiring them to pay minimum wage because they provide “educational, therapeutic, or rehabilitative” work for people with disabilities.

Ken Homenick, director of operations for SARCAN, which employs people with disabilities at a competitive wage, said the Saskatchewan model is working.

Program participants from training centres such as Cosmo — which has an agreement with the city to handle and sort all of the Saskatoon’s recycled paper — or Saskatchewan Abilities move into paid employment at places such as SARCAN’s recycling depots, where they are paid minimum wage or higher. Saskatchewan’s

“pioneering recycling model,” which involves people with disabilities at all levels, also has been held up for years as a positive example of providing
meaningful employment for people with disabilities, Homenick said.

Other provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia, which have moved away from the sheltered workshop model, subsequently had trouble finding meaningful activities for people, Homenick said.

Those who have severe disabilities end up “falling through the cracks,” he said.

“I truly believe there is a part to be played for rehabilitation centres and workshops,” he said. “They transition individuals into real employment.”

Bach said research in the area shows integrated work increases income, expands social relationships, and gives those with disabilities better life skills.

But the change can’t happen overnight, he said.

The provincial government must improve income assistance programs for the disabled, which Saskatchewan “is leading the way on,” Bach said.

There also needs to be significant investment in supportive employment programs in the private sector to offer opportunity for people trained at the sheltered workshops and activity centres, he said.

“People doing menial tasks for a small stipend should no longer be part of our social support landscape,” Bach said.

“But we need to build the leadership and partnerships with other similar providers of day programs to use their expertise to transition out of this.”

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