Celebrating Seventy Years of Community Living Part Three: Ensuring Real Work for Real Pay

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by Gord Kyle

By 1980, workers at the ARC industries in Carleton Place had waited as long as they were willing to wait. Their calls for better pay had not been listened to and action was needed. Sixteen workers walked out to press their demands, holding a much-publicized two-day strike. For many employers, the demands would have been granted without much thought and without the need for workers walking off the job. After all, they were only asking for a raise of two dollars and fifty cents. “But wait a minute,” I hear you saying, “two dollars and fifty cents was a lot of money in 1980.” After all, typical hourly wages for labourers often did not exceed five dollars. So let me clarify: The workers were asking for a raise of two dollars and fifty cents a week — up from ten dollars being paid at the time. And Carleton Place ARC Industries was not unique in paying its workers next to nothing — they were, in fact, paying better than many of the more than one hundred sheltered workshops operated by local Community Living Associations in Ontario.

For most people who had an intellectual disability at that time, working in a sheltered workshop was a common alternative to real employment. Early hopes that the workshops would be a means of preparing people for jobs in the community had largely been set aside. By 1980, many had accepted workshops as an alternative to employment and efforts were being made to improved rather than replace them. But that was about to change. A year later, in 1981, People First Ontario was founded, providing an effective voice for self-advocates. The demands of People First members were clear. They did not want to be sent away to institutions. They wanted the right to be educated in regular schools. They wanted to make their own choices about where and with whom they lived. And they wanted real jobs for real pay. In this article we will look at how and why Community Living created sheltered workshops and how, driven by the demands of people with disabilities, we gradually moved on from them to establish options for real employment.

In earlier articles in this seventieth anniversary history series, we looked at the work that the association’s founding parents undertook to build a network of schools across Ontario. Building their own segregated school system was the only solution these parents could find to the legislative exclusion of their sons and daughters from education. It did not take long before parents turned their attention to the question of what would come after school ended. Unfortunately, the work world at that time was no more welcoming than the school system was. Parents understood that if their children were to find jobs, it would be up to them to create a mechanism for that to happen.

In 1955, two years after its founding, the provincial association began to advocate for funding to support work related programs. In response, the federal Department of Health and Welfare announced that adults who had an intellectual disability would be included in the rehabilitation agreement between federal and provincial governments. Hoping that money would soon become available, work was undertaken to open sheltered workshops in Toronto and London in 1957, then two years later in Barrie and Oshawa. The workshops aimed to create work environments similar to those in the rest of the community where people with disabilities could develop their skills. The provincial government was slow to act on the new federal arrangement and it took nine years before the Ontario Vocational Rehabilitation Act came into effect. As had been the case with schools, local parent groups did not sit back and wait for the government to act. By the time the rehabilitation act was invoked in 1966, there were already forty-seven workshops in towns across the province. That number grew to eighty-seven by 1970 and eventually to more than one hundred.

It had not been the intention of those who started the first sheltered workshops that they be the final destination for people. The acronym ARC that most workshops used in their names stood for Adult Rehabilitation Centre. The workshops were initially envisioned as training centres where people could learn skills with the hope that many would go on to find regular jobs. To this end, the provincial association collaborated with Woods-Gordon Management Consultants in 1965 to devise tests to measure the capacity of people who had an intellectual disability to perform industrial work. In that same year, the Association coordinated the first sheltered workshop manager’s course aimed at building workshop staff competencies. In 1971, that training evolved and a one-year vocational rehabilitation program was started at Humber College.

Despite these efforts to shape the sheltered workshops as rehabilitation programs, they proved an ineffective means of preparing people for work in the regular labour market. There were many reasons why the workshops failed to help people gain real employment. One of the reasons was the government’s funding mechanisms. Funding formulas eventually evolved to provide up to eighty percent of operating budgets, meaning that workshops had to produce at least twenty percent of their costs. This created an incentive to increase production to produce revenue and, in some cases, hold onto the most skilled workers, those who may have been the most likely to succeed in regular jobs. Efforts to help people transition from the workshop to the labour market faded over time. Eventually the focus became almost exclusively the creation of work environments that were as much like regular workplaces as possible.

The types of work carried out across the province varied. Many workshops manufactured wooden products, one of the most successful being a wooden toy company established by the local association in Oshawa. Others established cleaning and lawn maintenance services, contracting with individuals and businesses. As markets for recycled materials emerged, some local associations established recycling centres. By far the most prevalent type of work carried out by sheltered workshops was subcontracting involving light-assembly and packaging of products for local businesses. Efforts were made to help local agencies market and promote their products and services. In 1971, the provincial association launched the ARC Mobile, a van equipped to bring the latest techniques, product ideas, and samples of equipment to the doors of local sheltered workshops throughout the province. Also in 1971, Northern Workshop Products was founded to market items produced at sheltered workshops in northern Ontario. In the coming decade, similar marketing organizations emerged in southern Ontario.

Over time, revenue generation, rather than success in placing people into employment, became the means by which the effectiveness of a workshop was measured. But these improvements in production seldom translated to money in the pocket for workers. Workshops typically paid people a tiny stipend for their work, usually in the order of a few dollars a week. Eventually the issue of payment for labour became a serious concern for those attending these programs leading to actions such as the Carleton Place strike in 1980 mentioned earlier. A decade after that strike, workers in two sheltered workshops in southwestern Ontario launched a complaint with the Ministry of Labour arguing that under provincial labour laws they were entitled to minimum wage. A hearing concluded that a sheltered workshop was not a regular place of employment and therefore not subject to protections under the act. The demand for payment of minimum wage was denied.

With the rise of the self-advocacy movement in the early 80s the call for helping people obtain real work for real pay intensified. At the provincial association’s annual general meeting in 1985, members passed a resolution that “priority attention be paid to the training and placement of people with disabilities in actual job settings, not sheltered and segregated settings, and supporting them to find, obtain and retain employment.” In response, the provincial association struck an employment working group the following year to recommend a path forward. That group investigated the idea of supported employment that had emerged in the preceding years, recommending it as a tool for local associations to use in their employment initiatives. Supported employment was an idea that broke with traditional rehabilitation thinking of “train then place”. Rather than running a training program to prepare people for work in regular employment and then attempting to find them a job, supported employment used a “place then train” approach which helped the person find a position in a regular workplace and then provided them the support and training they needed on the job. The first two supported employment programs in Ontario were opened in 1984 by the local associations in Mississauga and Newmarket. The idea quickly spread and in the coming years, programs emerged across the province, often by drawing money from the existing sheltered workshops. In 1988, the Ministry of Community and Social Services that funded employment programs asked Community Living Ontario to write a set of guidelines for supported employment. These were used to guide the evolution of the emerging programs and, while updated from the original, are still in place today.

Results from many of the early supported employment efforts were far from ideal. The work positions many found themselves in were sometimes not true employer-employee situations. Frequently, people received less than minimum wage for their work and some remained in unpaid training positions for long periods. But after more than thirty years of providing people with only an option for segregated sheltered employment, supported employment represented an alternative path that at least offered the promise of real work for real pay that people with disabilities were calling for.

Community Living called on government to implement policy for an orderly evolution of services that would over time reduce the reliance on sheltered workshops and build capacity and funding for real community employment. In 1993, the provincial association was invited to sit on a working group called Community Based Alternatives to Sheltered Workshops and Segregated Settings. The opposition to this exercise was swift and loud. Many parents feared that the government was about to close the doors of the workshops that they had worked so hard to create, leaving no employment options for their sons and daughters. Their concerns were not unreasonable given the still significant reliance on workshops. While great strides were being made in opening the door to community employment, there was nowhere near the capacity to immediately transition everyone from the sheltered workshop system. The Ministry’s working group recommended a funding mechanism that would gradually shift money into supported employment, downsizing and eventually closing workshops as people moved on to community-based jobs or found other daily activities to take part in.

The stage was set for an orderly evolution of the workshop system. Then, in 1995, Ontario elected a new government, bringing new priorities. The working group recommendations were shelved and reform of the sheltered workshops fell off the government’s agenda for the next 20 years. Local associations struggled to continue an orderly transition of employment services, but funding cuts over the following decade made that exceedingly difficult. Many of the supports that workshops had relied on to function, such as the regional marketing services, were defunded. It was an unforgivable ending to an enterprise that started with the best of intentions, and, despite its many flaws had demonstrated the capacity of people who have an intellectual disability to participate in daily work activities.

Community Living repeatedly call on the government for help in establishing a policy for an orderly transition of services. The workshop system continued to function, but barely. A few workshops managed to maintain a semblance of their productivity; others increasingly evolved into drop-in day programs with minimal focus on work activities. Increasingly, many of the programs were referred to disparagingly as “day-wasting centres”.

It was not until 2015 that Community Living Ontario finally convinced the government to pay attention to the issue again. At a meeting that Community Living Ontario held with the newly appointed Minister, Helena Jaczek, a representative of the Community Living Ontario Council asked the Minister a question about sheltered workshops. She provided a puzzled response stating that she understood that the workshops had been closed some time ago. Council members assured her that this was not the case and that action was desperately needed. Shortly after that meeting, Minister Jaczek called on workshop providers to develop plans for phasing out sheltered workshops and creating alternative supports for the people in the programs. She also signalled a date by which funding for workshops would stop. At that time, there were still seventy-five workshops in existence.

Ensuring that people who have an intellectual disability have access to the labour market was an aim of the parents that founded the association back in the ’50s and continues to be a key priority of Community Living today. Most local associations operate robust employment services that have helped many thousands of people find and retain employment. Community Living Ontario operates Ready, Willing and Able in collaboration with its national partner, Inclusion Canada. Ready, Willing and Able has an impressive track record in connecting employers across the country with employees who have disabilities.

The Community Living movement has never shied away from challenges, and ensuring equitable access to the labour market has been one of the tough ones. It is worth the effort though. Real work for real pay, as the self-advocate movement has consistently called for, is a key element in providing social connections and financial security. Through employment, many people can achieve a high degree of self-esteem and self-agency. Sheltered workshops were our founding members response to a society that refused to provide equitable access to real jobs and we should be exceedingly proud of the herculean effort it took to build the province-wide workshop system. One may look back at them and see them as being seriously flawed. They were, after all, highly segregated workplaces that almost never provided people income of more than a few dollars a week and seldom worked as vehicles for moving on into the regular labour market. But they did serve to demonstrate the capacity of people who have an intellectual disability to work, and gave the association the confidence needed to find other ways of opening the door to real jobs for real pay. Community Living has demonstrated time and again its willingness to honestly evaluate its efforts and make changes when needed. We have done so with other major social reform initiatives such as housing and education, and we did it with our work on employment. Creating the sheltered workshop system required a massive investment of people, time, and money. Despite this, when it became clear that something else was needed, the association was not only willing to dismantle and change what it had created, but rigorously advocated with government for help in doing so. Community Living started as a means of changing society in order to ensure that people who have an intellectual disability are included and have the chance to live a “normal life”, as our founding members described it. The workshops created a path forward, but ultimately proved ineffective as a tool for fully achieving the vision of real inclusion. The present efforts to help people find work in real jobs are having greater success, but we are far from done. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities in Ontario is still far too high. Many people who have an intellectual disability are unemployed or underemployed and many are not earning incomes that provide them a reasonable standard of living. Poverty continues to be a constant state for many. Let us hope that it does not take us another seventy years to address these issues.

I hope you enjoyed this article in the ongoing Community Living Ontario seventieth anniversary history initiative. If you have comments or questions about this article, points about our history that you would like to see addressed in future articles, or information you wish to share with me about our history, feel free to email me at gordonkyle@gmail.com