I recently had the opportunity to publicly discuss the Garrie v Janus ruling of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario which decided in favour of Terrie-Lynn Garrie; that her pay of $1.25 an hour was discriminatory and that she is to be awarded damages.
Beyond this specific situation, the HRTO has also pressed for more information about sheltered workshops across Ontario. US statistics indicate that almost three times as many resources are invested in segregated activities than in helping people with intellectual disabilities live as included citizens (homes, workplaces, social life). It is estimated that the situation is also 3:1 in Ontario but there is no available data to determine this. It’s something I am hoping the Legislature of Ontario Select Committee on Developmental Services can identify as an issue and find some answers.
We really don’t know much about where people with intellectual disabilities live, work, and play in our communities, and we certainly don’t know enough about the disconnect between our investment in the Developmental Services system and the results it produces. The system is supposed to be delivering inclusive outcomes, but given that the majority of its activities seem to be focused on infrastructure supporting group homes, sheltered workshops, and day programs, we need to ask some hard questions, get some solid answers, and start developing some firm plans to point the DS ship in the right direction.
In some ways it is simple – invest in what includes people, not what excludes them – and yet, it is very complicated. Some evidence of this is found in the recent column by Christie Blatchford “Case of seeming cruelty more complicated than it looks.”
Ms. Blatchford is correct that the situation is very complicated, and although she made a game effort to unbundle the facts, there is still some confusion to this story. This is not a criticism of her efforts, it’s just that when it comes to something as convoluted as sheltered workshops, there’s nothing simple about it.
It’s first important to clarify that there is no law that has closed sheltered workshops. There are in fact thousands of people, mainly those with intellectual disabilities, in work-like settings all over the province, where they are receiving “wages” similar to the $1.25 in the Garrie-Janus case. These workshops are in a very slow decline, but the slow pace of this social change (which has been going on for about 40 years) is clearly about to speed up.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and other moral and legal frameworks have brought new attention to these practices, and we are now at a critical juncture. We continue to invest heavily in segregated infrastructure (mostly established in the 1970s) when we need be adopting modern practices that result in inclusive outcomes. This requires entirely different types of supports, which although proven very effective, are grossly underfunded.
I’m not a lawyer or a labour law specialist, but as I understand it, one of the circumstances in this situation that made for a relatively clear human rights violation was the fact of non-disabled individuals working alongside individuals with disabilities, all of whom were performing similar tasks, but at decidedly different pay. That’s an ugly optic, even if it is complicated.
Whether someone’s mother approved of this or not, or whether the company told certain employees they could take coffee breaks as often as they wanted, or whether the low income amounts were reported to Ontario Disability Support Program, that did not sway the tribunal, and that is in my opinion a very good thing. When citizens of any type are being exploited, it’s not uncommon that caring or well-meaning people could be part of the processes, structures, or environments where discrimination is taking place.
But it would be a mistake to get trapped in the financial details or to focus solely on equity. The bigger picture here is a slow but sure social change where people with intellectual disabilities are emerging from the shadows and margins of their own communities.
It is no surprise that Ms. Garrie has not found life easy after leaving the workshop. I do not know her life history, so I’ll not speak to that, but refer instead to the typical profile of a person her age who has her particular disability labels: she would have received a segregated education (Special Education classrooms or a school that was entirely segregated) followed by adult services (such as day programs or sheltered workshops) where she would be similarly isolated from authentic community experience (such as a real workplace), and in a group living situation (such as a group home) with a staff-centric environment, sharing space with people that she never chose to live with.
For a person in their 40s with such a history, they would need a mix of paid and unpaid support to establish themselves in the community as a neighbour, an employee, and a valued citizen.
It is clear to me that we do need to bring sub-minimum wage practices to an end. This issue has exploded in the United States. President Obama has weighed in. There is a massive class action lawsuit in Oregon. This change in Ontario will happen, likely through a mix of voluntary transitions and legislative transitions.
But the real issue is planning for the transition. The closing part is relatively easy. It’s what happens next (or more appropriately, leading up to closure) that takes investment of thought and resources. There are many agencies that have been delivering inclusive outcomes for people with intellectual disabilities for 20 years or more, but these are by far in the minority, for the simple reason that their activities have not been significantly supported.
They have been considered on the fringe, likely labeled as “innovative” and thus isolated from mainstream funding sources. They operate without much infrastructure. Most of their work is about building relationships. This is harder to understand than building activity centres or group homes, but it’s what needs to be done if we believe in an inclusive society and also if we believe our tax dollars should deliver results we can be proud of.
The sheltered workshops could close tomorrow, and reopen the next day as “day programs” with no pay at all (instead of $1.25 an hour) and I believe most of the same people would come in and take their place around the tables just as they have always done before. So money has been the catalyst for drawing attention to this issue, but it’s not really THE issue.
This is really about how our society (and taxpayers) have invested and continue to invest billions of dollars in a system that serves mainly to segregate people with intellectual disabilities from their communities. Some 40 years ago, this was an advancement, as these centres were a great improvement compared to the large institutions located on the outskirts of town.
But now the next phase of this social change is long overdue. It’s not about providing people with a place where they can “sort of work” and sit on a sofa to pass the time. It’s about possibilities. It’s about respect and dignity. It’s about valuing people with intellectual disabilities as citizens who are not broken and who deserve to be welcomed everywhere in our communities. And it’s about how all citizens will benefit from their contributions.
I highly recommend “Community participation for adults with an intellectual disability: review of the literature prepared for the National Advisory Committee on Health and
Disability to inform its project on services for adults with an intellectual disability” for the development of a broader understanding about segregation versus inclusion.