Last week the Harper government decided to pull the plug on a long-standing contract with an Ottawa based program for adults with intellectual disabilities. The folks did mainly shredding work and were paid an average annual stipend of $2000, just enough to keep them under the limit of an allowable income without jeopardizing their Ontario Disability Support Program payments. I heard about the closure via Facebook and Twitter, both on the feeds of L’Arche friends and those of the Canadian Association for Community Living. The following two samples of what was posted represent the two key reactions that I witnessed:
This is an absolutely horrible decision by our Canadian government. Please contact your MP and inform her/him and ask that this decision be reversed.
Good to see a sheltered workshop closed. We need employment - real jobs for real pay.
Then yesterday, Andre Picard wrote an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail entitled You Don’t Help Disabled Workers by Hiding Them. Picard argues that workplaces like the one operated by the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons with Developmental Disabilities (OCAPD) are “outdated and counterproductive, a concept that the federal government should be working to eliminate, not perpetuate.” He points to the injustice of people with disabilities being forced to work for less than 10% of the minimum wage, and the fact that there are almost 800,000 people with disabilities in Canada who are able to work but cannot find employment.
Picard also says that “instead of sheltered workshops that isolate people from mainstream society, workers with disabilities should be provided with supports for employment that help them integrate”.
I share Picard’s outrage at the systemic discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities, and the devaluing of their contributions to society. But I felt similar outrage upon hearing of the government’s cancelling of the contract with the OCAPD and the injustice foisted upon the employees at that Centre as a result. It strikes me that, when it comes to work for people with intellectual disabilities, a more nuanced argument is called for.
First of all, I bristle at the use of the term “sheltered workshop” to describe all the group settings where people with intellectual disabilities spend their work days. In my experience at L’Arche, workplaces are anything but sheltered. They are vibrant, challenging, creative places where a diverse group of people come and go and offer their skills. These programs are integrated into their neighbourhoods, and provide meaningful places of connection not only for people with intellectual disabilities but for local artists, seniors, young people, and friends. These workplaces mitigate the very real isolation that people often live in their homes, which tend to be the more dangerous “sheltered” locations. Folks without access to public transportation, living in rural areas, who need enhanced medical or behavioural supports, or who thrive in and choose communal settings should not be condemned for working in group settings. The workplaces that are sheltered – closed to society, treating people with intellectual disabilities as children, limiting choice and control, and failing to be creative in drawing out people’s passions and skills – these are indeed “outdated and counterproductive” and should go the way of the dinosaur.
I am also uncomfortable with the implication that any program involving a group of people with disabilities is by definition a problem. Is there a reason why we encourage young people to gather in youth groups or centres, artists or musicians to gather in creative spaces, seniors to have clubs or tours, but we are so uncomfortable with people with disabilities choosing to work together? Disability is nothing to be ashamed of – it a naturally occurring part of human diversity, and many people with intellectual disabilities share common interests and experiences and therefore want to be together. The fact that we are so threatened by this says more about our own prejudices, I think, than about the rights of people with disabilities.
In my experience, many people with intellectual disabilities have a heart and a passion for art in all its forms. For evidence, look to the L’Arche International online art exhibit launched in 2014, or Hearts and Hands at L’Arche Antigonish, the work of Joan MacDonald or Gordon Mills or Lisa Leuschner or Heather Pinneo or other folks too numerous to mention. If making minimum wage is the only way to judge the value of someone’s work, artists are in trouble. How many artists earn minimum wage? And how many of them would jump at the chance to have their basic needs met by the social safety net in order to make their art possible? How many of them would be thrilled to have the opportunity to work in an art collective with a diverse group of artists and a community that welcomed what they create?
People with intellectual disabilities should have a diverse range of employment options to choose from. And whatever those options are, they should be well-funded, fulfilling, and integrated into society. Supported employment only works when it is supported; workshops don’t help people at all when they are sheltered. I join Andre Picard and others in calling for fair compensation for the contributions of people with intellectual disabilities, as long as that funding honours the diversity and the choices of the people it is meant to support.