"Giving Everyone a Chance" was the headline in November 8 issue of Toronto Star. The article lambasting the sheltered workshop environment for developmentally handicapped adults, stating that they work for as little as 46 cents per day.
It went on to mention that there is no reason why developmentally handicapped adults should be treated this way, as we have already fully integrated them into our educational system.
I was in this field for approximately 14 years, working one-on-one with many developmentally handicapped adults as a front line staff person.
I can assure the sheltered workshops are not “sweatshops” were people work long hard hours under dangerous conditions.
The staff strive to maintain a safe and caring environment and keep their trainees entertained and engaged. A happy worker is a productive worker. We never ask a trainee to perform a task we would not do ourselves, and we often worked right along side them.
Let us first address the pay issue. The Star stated that in many cases these individuals make less than 45 cents per hour.
I have not worked in the industry since 1996, but at that time, unless things have changed drastically, trainees received what was known as a training allowance if they worked in a training centre, or incentive pay if they were in a sheltered workshop. This amounted, at the time, to about $5 every two weeks (sometimes more if they were on a token economy program.)
Yes, this allowance was miniscule, and on the surface, this looks like exploitation.
However, training centres and sheltered workshops were established to teach developmentally handicapped adults about the value of work. In addition, they provide a constructive day program, as many of these individuals are not deemed employable.
The allowance that they receive is just that. They also get a Family Benefit Allowance, and Vocational Rehabilitation Services helps pay for their training. Their pay, therefore, is not being provided by the sheltered workshop or its contracts, but by the government.
Thus to say they work for as little as 45 cents per hour is misleading.
Many of the clients I worked with had dual diagnoses: psychiatric problems as well as being developmental delays. Many did not possess the social maturity to hold a full time job. Some were borderline individuals who may have been in fact learning disabled as opposed to developmentally delayed. We had the most success training and placing these individuals in the job market.
Of course, that was always reflective of the economy. If the economy was booming, the chances of integration were great, bit if not, then the a sheltered environment was the best place for them until the economy improved.
In fact, this idea of integration for developmentally handicapped adults is nothing new. This has been the ongoing policy of the Metropolitan Toronto Association for Community Living since the 1980s.
Integration can work if the environment is conducive to it, but that in itself is misleading. The Star leaves you with the warm fuzzy thought that if we shut down sheltered workshops, these clients would have a wonderful life in the real working world.
Time for a reality check. As it is, even university students have a hard time getting jobs that pay enough to live on, and in many cases they have no safety net. The real working world is highly competitive. Only the best and most qualified can survive.
So guess what? If you start mandating the employment of so many slow learners into the workforce, you'll have under-qualified staff working at your business for much lower salaries. Then think of the safety concerns that may arise if the person is easily distracted from their work.
The sheltered environment provides a safety net for the slow learner and protection from the kind of exploitation that exists in the real world.
As far as wages go, you would have to pay these slow learners minimum wage. This is hardly enough to survive and they would lose their Family Benefits Allowance.
Remember, I mentioned that we had the most success placing borderline handicapped or learning disabled adults in jobs. It is true, but here is the problem: The jobs they are offered are so low paying they are really not interested in doing them for the long term. They even tend to sabotage their placements in the community after awhile because they are now a small fish in a very big ocean.
However, in the sheltered environment, these individuals can have more say, gain more praise and help the slower learners in the group. They acquire status and self-esteem.
So does integration like the kind the Star promotes actually work?
Perhaps, but before we start shutting down training centres, we need to collect more data on the success of community based jobs for the very slow learner.
In our rush to do the “moral thing,” we may be putting a worthy group of people out on the streets with no program to help them.
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