Letter to the Editor: A Response to Recent Update Friday Story on Melly’s Market + Café

Note: We received the following letter in response to a story that was shared in the August 19, 2022 edition of Update Friday. The story highlights a new cafe in Whitby that purports to offer employment training for people who have an intellectual disability. However, there is more to the story than meets the eye, and this letter expands upon initial concerns we also expressed about the initiative.

Dear CLO, 

We are a group of families and team member partners from a family resource and support organization right here in Durham Region where Melly’s Market + Café has opened.  

This article is getting a large media response and we so appreciate some of our own concerns and clarity being captured in the succinct editor’s note that accompanied the article when it was shared in your Update Friday newsletter. Families need to see what is on offer in our communities, and then they need some guidelines to think through whether the offering is sound. 

When people with disabilities are grouped together based on their disabilities rather than their interests, talents, and opportunities, we have learned to immediately take notice and begin to worry. Nothing good has come out of this approach for the past 150 years. No matter how beautifully it is packaged, we have learned to see and avoid the places, programs, training options, housing, and other situations that focus on the disabilities of our family members and not on their contributions. When Melly’s Market + Café opened, we immediately paid attention. 

On a daily basis, families and agencies are bombarded with new, bright, shiny options that promise to deliver good home, work and recreation options specifically to people with disabilities. The public is content that something is happening for “those people”; the government feels a bit more let off the hook, and the families feel hope once more. However, it is really the time, hopes, and dreams of people with disabilities who are crushed in the aftermath as they have to re-live the reality yet again that “special places for special people” just don’t work for them, don’t deliver belonging, and keep them on the outside of real community. We call this “goldfish bowl integration”. 

Melly’s Market + Café is no exception. The fact that the training rate is set exactly for the lowest rate of Passport allocation means that it is aimed at people who have the lowest support requirements and therefore targets people who would have the greatest chances of success with on-the-job paid training from well-supported employers. But the existence of Melly’s Market + Café in Whitby diminishes that likelihood. 

Instead, in this model, who wins out in the end? Let’s follow the money. For about the same cost as college tuition for a food services program, participants receive a completion certificate of no value. The participants also do not get any training stipend while they complete their training. They are only promised minimum (and unlivable wages) and no set hours. There is a vague promise of some employment in other local restaurants, but for most they would have to train all over again—they might as well have gone there first and been paid the whole time. Let’s imagine that the first five trainees are successful and move on to some paid hours at Melly’s. What happens when there are another five successful trainees in three months, and a full 15 by the next three? What would their paid hours look like? And, if they are not successful, they will not have any more Passport dollars to explore other options. 

Let’s continue to follow the money—who, in fact, does benefit from full wages in this scenario? The director, the barista, the baker, any additional training staff, the landlord, and the local businesses who provide supplies. So, it is only the people who have a disability who do not get paid while learning, do not get guaranteed hours upon completion, and cannot ever rely on this café for their livelihood. None of this is true for the paid staff who do not have a disability. 

And what is taught to people with a disability, their families, and the local community through this high-profile example? People with disabilities will learn that hard work does not get paid, and that being a part of real community through employment remains elusive—a picture that once again does not include them. Families learn that getting their hopes up is only temporary and may realize that their family member never even liked food services but chose it because there was so little else on offer—another promise that could not be delivered. Most importantly, the community sees a “special place for special people”, feels good that something is happening for “them”, and concludes they need not do much themselves. They can feel justified in not hiring employees with disabilities—clearly these “special” folks need specialized training by special staff, and clearly they are not yet ready for employment. If they are asked to take on a trained employee, they will be disappointed that they need to on-board the person all over again. They will have thought that training was already taking care of, and will likely pronounce the person not yet ready for employment. 

Furthermore, the developers of Melly’s Market + Café have set themselves up as a charitable organization. The impression given to the community is that even the developers of this concept don’t have much hope that the people they train will turn this into a viable business venture. It is a feel-good, attractive charity run for people for whom not much more can supposedly be expected. 

The people behind Melly’s Market + Café are likely well-intentioned. They will say they want the best for people with disabilities. However, what they would call “best” is just not good enough. It is not good enough for the average worker and should not be good enough for workers with disabilities. However, without doing the critical thinking required to understand the way our society works, Melly’s Market + Café is doomed to repeat past failures—despite good intentions. Instead, they need to be able to see that we do not need to get people with disabilities “ready for work” in readiness training programs. This has never worked. Sheltered workshops have recently been closed because readiness programs do not work. Residential institutions and schools tried to get people ready for a life in ordinary community, but harmed rather than made any progress. We need to learn from the past, not move forward while repeating the same mistakes. 

The only progress that has been made over the years is when planning and implementation of actions are done one person at a time alongside the person themselves and those who know them best—often family, chosen family, and allies. Success happens when we follow the natural pathways to employment, home, leisure, and relationships that work for all other people. This means that success happens when we start with understanding the person, their interests and talents, the unique contributions they have to offer, and in which work environments they best thrive. Only then can we imagine an approach to employment that can be customized where necessary but clearly identifies matches and potential contributions. Success happens when most of the support is offered to employers or third parties in the situation—support to see not just the disability, but the full potential and entirety of the person; support to customize the workplace for a win-win outcome; support to understand how business is better when everyone has a part. 

In the end, people with disabilities want to belong, be welcomed for what they have to offer, and their participation and presence recognized for making a better world in all of our communities. Melly’s Market + Café is likely striving for that very same world—but the founders need to understand our society better in order to offer something real and not repeat the mistakes of the past. 

Meanwhile as families, we will continue to notice and develop the contributions and talents of our family members who have a disability, imagine where these gifts might best be offered, work with local businesses to recognize and support their valued participation in the workforce, and build a community where together we are stronger. 

Thank you, 

— Families and Team Members in partnership working toward real community where everyone does belong and contributes