Ontario will eliminate provincially funded workshops where people with intellectual disabilities do menial tasks for pennies a day, says a top official with Ontario's Ministry of Community and Social Services.
The decision is the strongest statement yet from the ministry following a Toronto Star series exposing the problem. Initially, the government announced there would be no new admissions to the workshops, typically located in industrial malls. Now the province plans to close them forever.
Barbara Simmons told the Toronto Star that change will unfold "one individual at a time," as workshops are gradually replaced by agencies that find jobs, volunteer work and other activities in the community. No one will be left without services, she promised.
"It's a new era for this fantastic population to realize their full potential," said Simmons, director of the ministry's community supports policy branch.
The Star investigation found many people with intellectual disabilities spend decades in segregation doing basic labour called "employment training." Most never leave. The Star profiled individuals who broke the mold, earning good wages at companies such as Tim Hortons and the Air Canada Centre.
In response to the stories, Minister Jaczek told the Star she would close the workshops to new admissions. “I don’t ever want to see someone who has not been involved in a sheltered workshop move into one,” Jaczek said at the time.
The minister's promise two weeks ago — of incremental change — was lauded by advocates who have spent years pushing for an end to the segregation of people with intellectual disabilities.
Now, the same advocates say they're thrilled but shocked by the ministry's new commitment to a massive transformation.
"I had no idea this was coming," said Mark Wafer, a Tim Hortons owner who has hired 122 people with disabilities over 20 years.
"We've been working on this for years, but we didn't have the Star in our corner — that really made a difference here," Wafer said. "I suspect that the government wanted to end sheltered workshops because that has been happening around the world, but they just needed a catalyst."
The Star investigation was controversial. The idea of change was condemned by workshop operators and the families who understandably rely on regular programs for their adult son or daughter.
Many in workshops enjoy the social life and a place to go during the day, but miss out on opportunities for a life in the community, including real employment and legitimate wages, the Star found.
Accessibility advocates compared their fight against segregated workshops to the civil rights movement of the 1950s.
Now, with change promised, the advocates agree that the ministry is on the right track with its plan to help each individual find a new active life in the community — with ongoing supports.
This slow, methodical transformation is the same method used in U.S. jurisdictions such as Vermont and Washington state, and in Ontario, where some agencies have independently dropped the segregated model.
The mantra is to bring about change "individual by individual" until workshops are empty.
Bryan Dague, of the University of Vermont's Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, said families understandably respond to such changes with fear. Over time, they discover the new way leads to a better life.
"If people are in sheltered workshops, they're really not working," Dague said. "They are probably getting the worst services of anybody ... They are just (existing) there. They can get better services elsewhere."
That could mean a mix of employment, volunteering, and other activities such as fitness, Simmons said, with a focus on a life spent in the mainstream community.
"The intent is never to cut people off or shut people out or close things," she said. "The intent is to ensure that each individual is really able to exercise their power of choice and get to a place where they are fully participating in the community."
In many regions it takes about five years to close workshops for good, but ministry official Simmons said there are no plans in Ontario for a hard deadline.
But measurements and deadlines are needed, said Joe Dale, who operates the Ontario Disability Employment Network.
"I'm a firm believer that you need to put in a good solid plan on how you are going to do this. It has be done in a proper time frame," Dale said. The five-year plan makes sense, he said.
Simmons said Dale's organization will be asked to help agencies recalibrate their plans. Some previously expressed an interest in change as the ministry sent signals of its growing interest in community participation by funding new employment-related programs.
She also cited Ottawa's LiveWorkPlay as one of Ontario's best: an agency that helps people reach their potential in the community by providing ongoing supports to families and employers.
Keenan Wellar, co-leader of LiveWorkPlay, said people are supported in many ways — not just in employment.
"We help them with their home life and social life, building connections and networks, and not only joining but also developing as contributors to clubs, courses, classes, teams, volunteering," Wellar said.
Wellar's organization helped Jeremy Robin leave a sheltered workshop and get a job washing carpets and drapes with Ottawa's Parliament Cleaning Group. That was about four years ago.
Now, Robin's boss, Vaughan McKinney, said Robin, 25, has had four merit pay raises, never misses a day of work, lives in his own apartment and "has a great relationship with a woman after falling in love."
Robin rides shotgun in the cleaning trucks, and every morning his co-workers fight over who gets to work with him, McKinney said.
"He's just such a positive person, everybody wants to be around him."