2018 Report to the UN, pt 8: Employment and Human Rights in Ontario

NOTE: We have split our UN report on Human Rights for Autistics in Ontario into sections and are blogging them. This section deals with employment and sheltered workshops in Ontario.

Employment: Marginalization and exploitation
A 2008 study of Toronto autistic youth by the Redpath Centre and University of Toronto showed that just 16.5 per cent of respondents were working full or part time. Without employment, it is not possible for most autistic people to live independently. With employment that has marginal pay, it is also impossible. Autistics who can’t live independently are at risk of abuse and many lack the freedom of movement to break free of abusive situations. Safety is a serious issue in some households and in group home settings.

The Ontario government’s autism plan doesn’t fund any services for job-seekers, nor for continuing education. In fact, employment, higher education and housing are not mentioned once in the plan. While some non-profits run annual job fairs and the private sector does some recruiting there, it is not enough to address the magnitude of the problem. There is no province-wide data about the number of IDD and autistics who are seeking employment, nor about the specific needs, qualifications and barriers to employment. Without this data or any funding, autistic job-seekers remain marginalized in our province.

In the late 20th century, as part of de-institutionalization in both the US and Canada, many communities opened up sheltered workshops, where workers with intellectual or other disabilities were placed in factories and other workplaces to do jobs for sub-minimum wages, often just a few dollars a day. The low wages were often accompanied by the myth that it was “training” for future employment at a living wage.

But it turned out sheltered workers weren’t being trained; they were trapped. “Training opportunities” translated over the decades into dead-end jobs for low wages. IDD workers were not learning skills for the paid workforce and remained unable to earn enough to live independently.

For this reason, many communities in the United States discontinued sheltered workshops and replaced them with positive alternatives. Following this lead, the former Government of Ontario under the Liberal Party decided to close all sheltered workshops, effective January 2019.

Unfortunately, with a new (Progressive Conservative) majority recently elected to Ontario Parliament, this legislation is now under attack by regressive forces in our province and it is unclear if the sheltered workshops will close in January.

The Torchlight sheltered workshop, which has been scheduled to close in 2019, states its purpose as: “to establish and operate workshops and sheltered workshops for the purposes of providing treatment, education and vocational training for handicapped persons.” But a Toronto Star investigation showed that in sheltered workshops, the workers were doing the following: “building wooden crates for 50 cents an hour; packaging student exam care packages for a few pennies each; and assembling windshield wiper tubes for roughly a nickel a piece.”

As Globe and Mail columnist Andre Picard has written: “What these workers – who by all accounts do their jobs well – need is not pity, but respect. They need to be afforded the same rights as other Canadians, including the protection of the country’s labour laws.”

We authored a statement with Community Living about the closures, supporting the transition away from sheltered workshops towards including community participation supports and employment opportunities at and above the minimum wage. The Canadian Down Syndrome Society also supports the closure of sheltered workshops, noting that they have been phased out successfully in many parts of the US. As it stands, all of our organizations are bracing for a fight to keep them closed in 2019.

Read the full report