“They will have real work for real value” or “How can we begin the end of sheltered workshops for a better society for all?”

The recent media attention (see Ottawa Citizen articles 1234 by Chris Cobb and an editorial) given to the pending closure of the OCAPDD sheltered workshop at Tunney’s Pasture in Ottawa exposed the general public to a hidden world that has been right in their backyard (and in the backyard of many communities across Ontario).


In the United States the controversy over sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wage page for workers with intellectual disabilities has generated national attention through the practices of Goodwill Industries

I have watched the media as well as regular citizens try to sort through the conflicting and often inaccurate information. It would be funny if the takeaways were not so tragic.

OCAPDD is a provincially funded agency, but the main activity of their sheltered workshop program is paper sorting, and that activity has been fuelled by a federal government contract that was to have ended this month.

Instead of developing a transition plan for the 50 individuals over the past two years (the approximate time since the ending of the contract was known) the sheltered workshop participants were instead thrust in front of the cameras, and their tears (based in completely rational fears) produced results. Minister Poilievre announced a snap decision to continue the contract, emphasizing that “nothing has changed.”

What a pity.

After all, we are talking about a 40 year old institutional model of service, and we are talking about paying people with intellectual disabilities $1.25 so we can all have our paper sorted more cheaply than if it were done by citizens who are not exempted from labour laws through a questionable dodge that sheltered workshops are “training programs.”


From the federal report: “Employers take seriously their responsibilities to include workers with disabilities in the workforce, and are eager to learn how they can do better.” Are we seeing leadership from the federal government itself – as a significant employer – on this issue?

I assert that training programs that can last forever are really more like “holding tanks.” You can have holding tanks that are “nicer” than other holding tanks, but it’s not real work if it’s not real pay, and we have to start having open and honest conversations about what these sorts of peculiar arrangements really say about Canadian society and how we value people with intellectual disabilities.

If, as is quoted in the Minister’s statement, he believes this is about “real work for real value” it is easy to take from this that he believes the work to be real, but the value of $1.25 for a worker with an intellectual disability is appropriate.

Then again, I don’t think that’s what he means.

There are those who have enjoyed bashing the federal government for their own purposes, but the legacy of the Harper government as regards disability issues is actually quite strong, and in particular with respect to encouraging employment. That’s what makes their handling of this situation all the more peculiar! I suppose a misreported story that results in thousands of angry voters spending their weekend demonizing you for putting disabled people out on the street could be strong motivator to work quickly now and think deeply later…

That it is only the federal government that has come under scrutiny in this situation is an incredible tactical and strategic win for those who actually operate the program. The federal government is the contractor, not the operator of the program or the funder of the program. Not that this exempts them from accountability, I point it out because the feds are not the closest to the situation, they are not forcing the agency to sign the contract, and it’s not actually their mandate to provide direct social services to these individuals.

OCAPDD receives about $24,000,000 every year in funding from the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services, which includes funding for the two staff members who supervise the paper sorting program participants. The organization has been applauded in some quarters for the “victory” of “keeping the program open” but others wonder if this was not the time to apply the same significant resources to a different outcome.

There is a lot of collateral damage as well as a result of the way this has played out in such a clumsy fashion. Here’s my quick list:


Matt was not supposed to walk or talk, and in his final year of high school, he was also getting the advice that he would not be able to work. But someone forgot to tell his employer!

  • Misinformation (that went uncorrected) asserting that the $1 wages help protect the individuals from losing their disability pension. This is completely false, and what tacticians spinning this angle either failed to consider (or just don’t care) is that right now some parent of a young person with an intellectual disability who is about to graduate high school now thinks paid employment is not an option because their ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) will be taken away. Totally, utterly, false. But the damage may be done and irreversible. It took about ten years after the ODSP system changed in the 1990s to convince job-seekers that they would not lose their benefits. Undoing that progress to any degree is a shameful and unnecessary outcome.
Click on the image to link for a keynote presentation about how to support a welcoming community for individuals with intellectual disabilities

Click on the image to link for a keynote presentation about how to support a welcoming community for individuals with intellectual disabilities

  • Portrayal of the individuals in the sheltered workshop as incapable of other life outcomes. There is actually no assessment tool that can determine who is capable or incapable of a life beyond a segregated environment. In my own personal and professional life I have known many people labelled as “unemployable” who went on to have real jobs for real pay. Employers decide who can work, not social services agencies. There seems to be some confusion about that! In my experience, probably the last people you want involved in assessing possibilities are staff who spend their lives managing holding tanks. It’s not that they are bad people (their jobs are relentlessly routine) but they are not tasked with seeing possibilities, and the sheltered workshop environment tends to make people increasingly incapable, Seeing what “could be” from their perspective is often very difficulty. They tend to adopt a very protective attitude about what “the community” can offer.
  • Another argument made for sheltered workshops is that it is a place to go all day every day. This is true! Full-time employment is difficult for many job-seekers to find, with or without a disability label. But we don’t take non-disabled people who aren’t working full-time and put them in a holding tank, right? The Ottawa community has a lot to offer when we aren’t working. Citizens with intellectual disabilities need support to do the same things as other citizens do, not a disability-only systemic construct to “keep them busy.” In most cases they will need support to achieve this outcome, and that’s just fine. It is not free to operate sheltered workshops, so we need to shift our resources towards person-centred, assets-based, community-focused outcomes.

Sheltered workshops in Ontario are going to close. They are closing in most provinces in Canada and increasingly across the United States, where the path to adjudicated justice is somewhat less complicated. But must we wait until a court tells us to stop doing harm? Cannot the sector and those agencies closest to this population and their families lead the change, rather than be dragged?

Time will tell.


A recent interview where some of these themes were discussed

About Keenan Wellar

Keenan is a citizen of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) and co-leader of a social change and community benefit organization, LiveWorkPlay.ca, 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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1 Response to “They will have real work for real value” or “How can we begin the end of sheltered workshops for a better society for all?”

  1. Pingback: Should people with intellectual disabilities be removed from Ontario’s employment standards so they can work for sub-minimum wage? Regress or progress? | Keenan Wellar

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