NOTE: We have split our UN report on Human Rights for Autistics in Ontario into sections and are blogging them. Here is the conclusion.
The future: Institutional retrenchment or autism acceptance?
This week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford introduced the possibility of re-opening sheltered workshops. Somehow, we knew this was coming. The long-due closure of sheltered workshops was a key element in the 2015 Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act (Bill 148) passed by the former government. The sheltered workshop closure was phased, set to complete in January 2019. It remains to be seen what the new rollbacks in labour laws will look like and how it will impact our lives.
The new government’s dismissal of Bill 148, like so much other legislation, points to the trend of retrenchment, favouring business interests over the needs of residents while saying that the changes are being made “for the people,” (a popular talking point of Ford Nation). Sheltered workshops (like the farms at Huronia) make a profit for the business at the expense of the employees. Yet as with the fields of Huronia, workshop owners portray an opportunity for development and “training”, a favour being done for the employees.
In 2018, this patronizing rhetoric feels as gaslighty as it likely did to our forebears in residential institutions. Workers in sheltered workshops do not have the same freedom of movement and economic choice as other workers. The jobs don’t advance them. Their rights are not being honoured. Sheltered workshops should have been closed here years ago. When will they be?
What is going on in our province right now? How do we, as rights advocates, steer this boat?
We’ve started by collaborating and communicating with agencies that are open to change, that will listen. At the same time, we are also making our presence known in spaces where most don’t want to see or hear us. We are building capacity within our own communities and dialoguing to understand our diversities and intersectionalities. We are working to give a broader legitimacy to autistic voices throughout Canada – in media, in the non-profit world and in policymaking. We’re getting the facts out there and having hard conversations, joining on common issues wherever we can, and glad to see other groups joining us.
Despite the negative political climate in Ontario, the conversation about neurodiversity is opening up in the broader culture. Globally, autistic self-advocates and researchers are disrupting the autism industry, claiming space as agents for the ideas–and the data–that will move us in a positive direction. Increasingly, autistic self-advocacy groups and autistic researchers are advising not-for-profits and policymakers as part of best practices. Autistic researchers are also gathering information on the many topics that matter to us but haven’t been studied. Self-advocates and researchers have also had success in building project partnerships that fall completely outside of the industry. A recent research example here is the AIDS Committee of Toronto partnering on one of the first-ever studies of autistic sexual health, developed by an autistic researcher with input from the community.
We disagree with Coker Capital group, which describes the autism industry as “poised for consolidation”. As it stands, the autism industry generates billions for companies worldwide, but attempts at consolidation (as is happening in Ontario with ABA dominance) have led to disastrous breakdowns in useful supportive services. Just two per cent of autistic people support the use of ABA, making it a true standout as a therapy being forced on a disabled population that doesn’t want it.
The autism industry has largely maintained the idea of us – autistics – as an abstract: a gene to splice, a set of behaviours to correct, our entire childhoods a measurable outcome in a Gantt chart. But life isn’t really like that. The Coker report states that the “fragmentation” of autism services is a problem for investors. Yet what the consolidation proponents call fragmentation is often actually flexibility, essential to keep (or make) services workable for us. Services for autistics need to be flexible and diffuse.
In contrast to the medical model, consider the flexible approach that reflects autism acceptance and the social model. It includes innovations such as inclusive design in classrooms, sensory-friendly spaces, improved workspaces for retainment, as well as meaningful demography, human rights regulation and enforcement, de-escalation alternatives & trauma-informed care, autistic inclusion in social assistance and jobs legislation, and education for teachers, providers and policymakers that is informed by autistic people. These are all being implemented by governments and non-profits outside of Ontario.
But Ontario remains mired in the idea that services for autistics should be delivered in a consolidated, top-down package. That idea isn’t working. And the stakes are high for our community. Many of us are poor, in pain, and not receiving the services we need. Still others are victims of horrific abuse, patterns that trace back to the era of residential institutions.
The government of Ontario needs to tap into the energy and creativity of the neurodiversity movement. Our policymakers must engage less with the autism industry and more with the actual stakeholders. The Province should be documenting and taking action to prevent human rights abuses through regulation and enforcement, while making it easier to report abuse and encouraging transparency. Finally, the Government needs to engage autistic Ontarians in meaningful consultation as it develops the policies that deeply affect our lives.