Deconstructing Sheltered Workshops: Confusion Abounds

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.

About Keenan Wellar

Keenan is a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of a social change and community benefit organization,, a registered charity which helps the community welcome and include people with intellectual disabilities, autistic persons, and individuals with a dual diagnosis to live, work, and play as valued citizens. LiveWorkPlay was named Ottawa's Best Non-Profit of 2019 by the Ottawa Board of Trade and Ottawa Business Journal "Best Ottawa Business Awards " With Julie Kingstone, Keenan is co-owner of Wellstone Leadership Services, dedicated to supporting a culture of excellence for non-profit, private sector, government organizations, collaborations, and partnerships. Keenan is a founding member of the leadership group for the From Presence To Citizenship collaborative. Keenan is a regular guest (monthly) of the News 1310 Power Lunch radio show, and he writes the monthly NPQ North column for Nonprofit Quarterly. When not working and supporting various social causes, Keenan loves kayaking and wildlife photography, cheering for the Ottawa RedBlacks and Pittsburgh Steelers, and causing a disturbance on social media.
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2 Responses to Deconstructing Sheltered Workshops: Confusion Abounds

  1. Pamela Singleton Palmer says:

    Thank you for sharing this Keenan. I am wondering about your vision for the future; do you see a society where there is no DS sector required because inclusion is valued and embraced by all citizens? A Nirvana, so to speak? I was thinking that deconstruction of Community Participation Supports, of which some workshops/day programs are a part, is where you are ultimately heading? I am wondering about the person who is a part of the DS sector…what are the implications for their family if these opportunities are regarded as a form of respite to them? I’m not saying it’s right; but I wanted to look at the situation from a more holistic, family in community perspective. Perhaps there’s an even bigger question to include in the transition consideration…how do we ensure that families don’t breakdown while these transitions occur?
    No person should be exploited the way that Ms. Garrie has been. It’s a story that repeats & resonates in the DS sector.
    We are part of a sector that is counter-intuitive: support inclusion (we even have legislation around it!!) AND here is your funding to provide, incidentally, segregated services.


    • Thanks Pam I’ve tried to explain that this is about a transition and that the mere transaction of shutting down sheltered works and enclaves and day programs is not what this is about. To some extent the “shut them down” war cry is necessary because as we’ve seen the pace of change in DS is unacceptably slow. In many cases agencies clearly will not move forward without some external incentive.

      I believe people with intellectual disabilities have the right to the removal of barriers keeping them from enjoying a regular life – meaning a life with the choices and opportunities available to other citizens who have not been labeled with an intellectual disability and therefore not assumed to be best suited to a life of segregation that starts with Special Education and then becomes special housing special occupation and special recreation.

      It’s important to note that many individuals have already transitioned from sheltered workshops so it is not a fanciful notion – I’m thrilled to be associated with several people with intellectual disabilities who are now living in their own apartments with jobs and/or a mix of non-segregated community pursuits and expanded social networks that include non-disabled friends.

      These individuals need some support. But their “residential support” is by invitation – it is their home and the help is what and when they want it to be. To get and keep jobs, support is required. Most people also need some help navigating relationships including those with their own family members. This is difficult complicated messy work because it is real life. But the outcomes are real to. Interdependence instead of dependence is one of the most noticeable.

      LiveWorkPlay had a day program for about 8 years! It was our decision to close it down. It took about 2 years from when we first raised it with the membership to the day we turned out the lights. The transition support was not that complicated even if the work was very demanding. We just started listening to what people want and redirected our resources accordingly. Interestingly, of those who’ve left a sheltered workshop, none are interested in going back even if their current job falls through. We’ve learned that employment can be a big thing but it’s not the only thing. The work we have done to connect people with regular sports leagues, ordinary learning environments, and reciprocal unpaid relationships (including friendships) is some of the best work we’ve done. Some people get their start in having a real life through employment but for others it might start with getting an apartment or joining a curling team. And it takes time and sustained partnership.

      The end of DS as we know it would be wonderful. Let’s face it some people have fears about what comes next but that’s not the same as celebrating our cherishing. Everyone knows we can do better. We just need to get our eyes on the prize and keep it simple – a home a job cool things to do and cool people to do them with – and not get bogged down in 20 years of fussing over “whether we should” make radical changes.


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