Guelph parents protest plan to end sheltered workshops

Protesters rally outside the office of Sly Castaldi, Guelph's Liberal candidate in the upcoming provincial election. Matt Carty / CJOY News

The Ontario government’s plan to remove sheltered workshops, like Torchlight Services and ARC Industries in Guelph, is not sitting well with parents who have children with special needs.

Dozens protested on Tuesday outside the offices of Guelph MPP Liz Sandals and Sly Castaldi, the Liberal candidate in Guelph for the upcoming Ontario election.

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“We’re trying to get it back on the table because they just made a huge error,” said Susan Wahlroth, whose 28-year-old son with down syndrome works at Torchlight.

Sheltered workshops were created as a temporary place where people with disabilities would learn various job skills, but make less than minimum wage.

Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services has argued that the decision to shutter the facilities across the province is the right one.

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“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,” said Ministry spokesperson Daniel Schultz in a statement to Global News.

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But Wahlroth said it’s not about the money for her son and others like him, and added it’s not up to the government to determine how he spends his day.

“They love going to work because they are working with their friends,” she explained. “[My son] is very, very proud of the work he does there, it’s meaningful for him, he’s empowered by it.”

“It’s gone, so now he goes there and he mostly cries because there is no work there.”

There are 33 agencies across Ontario that are transitioning individuals from sheltered workshops into employment, community participation, day programming or a combination of all three.

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The Ministry said 27 have completed the transition and the remaining agencies will have fully transitioned by Jan. 1, 2019.

BELOW: 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.

Click to play video: 'Families fight to keep Sheltered Workshops going in Ontario'
Families fight to keep Sheltered Workshops going in Ontario

Bruce Poole sits on the Board of Directors at Torchlight and his son, who is autistic and non-verbal, works there.

He said his son is unemployable and with so many obstacles in his way, Torchlight is the perfect place for him to work.

“It’s built, designed and staffed with people that are trained,” he said. “They’re not comfortable going to a McDonald’s and being the only one there who is not on a work placement.”

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He believes out of the 42 people with special needs that work at Torchlight, only one could go out and find a job.

“That’s not a good number, so the employment part is not realistic and the same with the volunteer [work]. You can’t just go to a place and volunteer and not have to have some type of protection,” Poole said.

A rally is planned at Queen’s Park next week and Wahlroth said they’re still considering their options when it comes to filing a human rights complaint.

“You choose where you go to work, I choose where I go to work. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to choose?” she said.

— With files from Caryn Lieberman

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