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Families plead with Ontario government to keep sheltered workshops alive

WATCH ABOVE: The province is phasing out a program that allows people with disabilities to work for less than minimum wage. The Ontario government says there is no justification in the 21st century to segregate any group of people and pay them less for the work they do. Caryn Lieberman reports.

Duncan McDonald packs his lunch before he heads off to work at Torchlight Services in Guelph.

The 28-year-old has been attending the program since he graduated high school.

“I love working with my friends,” McDonald, who has Down Syndrome, explained.

But like other sheltered workshops in the province, Torchlight Services will no longer be providing work for people like McDonald because the province has been phasing out the program since 2015.

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Sheltered workshops are mostly run by not-for-profit organizations with provincial funding. The workshops were created as temporary places where people with disabilities would learn job skills.

“With the official passage of Bill 148: Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, 2017, the exemption to the Employment Standards Act that allowed for sheltered workshops in Ontario and denied either minimum wages, or overtime or hours of work protection or all of the above, has been removed,” Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services spokesperson Daniel Schultz noted.

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The Ministry said there are currently 33 agencies working to transition individuals from sheltered workshops into employment, community participation, day programming or a combination of these activities.

So far, 27 have completed the transition and the remaining agencies with sheltered workshops will have fully transitioned by Jan. 1, 2019.

“We are committed to getting this right,” Schultz told Global News.

“We will continue to work with agencies to transition away from sheltered workshops as we continue to support dignity, independence, choice and inclusion for all individuals with developmental disabilities.”

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Opponents of the program said it was exploiting people with disabilities by paying them less than the minimum wage.

Caryn Lieberman
Caryn Lieberman

But families of participants at Torchlight Services said it has nothing to do with the money.

“For Duncan, having Down Syndrome and having a disability, he’s found a place where he can have a job that is meaningful to him that he does well and that he’s proud of,” Susan Wahlroth, Duncan McDonald’s mother, said.

She questioned whether the government’s decision may be a violation of human rights against the most vulnerable members of society.

“That choice of how he wants to spend his day has been taken away,” she noted.

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“The special needs population is so diverse you have a number of different disabilities in there and within each disability you have a huge spectrum and everybody is capable of different things.”

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At Torchlight Services, Bruce Poole’s eldest son, who has Autism and is non-verbal, sits quietly sorting screws in two boxes. It’s a simple task, but one that he enjoys.

“That work meant everything to him, you can put a puzzle in front of him, you can put colouring in front of him, but it doesn’t mean anything to him. He needs to be productive,” Poole, who also sits on the Board at Torchlight, explained.

READ MORE: World Down Syndrome Day hopes to improve community awareness and inclusion

“It’s a freedom of choice of employment. They don’t have to come here, they’ve chosen to come here because they like the environment, especially the staff that are trained and dedicated.”

Since 2005, Ken Hickson, has been using that workshop.

“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I enjoyed it, now it’s completely gone.”

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Both Bruce Poole and Susan Wahlroth, parents of young men with disabilities, expressed frustration that the provincial government did not meet with families before making the decision to end the sheltered workshops.

READ MORE: ‘Life, Animated’ shows how a family uses Disney movies to communicate with son with autism

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“They did this without consultation with parents, caregivers or the individuals that work there,” Wahlroth said.

“Duncan and his friends’ days have now been relegated to nature walks, games, watching movies, while the employees at the sheltered workshop scramble to find ways for them to fill their days with meaning.”

She said she feels the Ministry of Community and Social Services has decided that a “life of leisure” is better for her son, but believes that is a “huge mistake that’s affected thousands of people across the province.”

Wahlroth is planning a march at Guelph MPP Liz Sandals’ office next week and an even bigger rally at Queen’s Park in mid-May.

“I believe in an accessible, inclusive environment and I think us, as a society in Canada, have done a really great job however within that accessible, inclusive society you can also have segregation in there and loneliness,” she said.