Chanting “meaningful work for meaningful lives,” several dozen parents and their young adult children marched at Toronto’s Queen’s Park Wednesday.
The group came by bus from Guelph to deliver a message to the candidates vying for the Premier’s office.
“We keep talking about equal pay for equal work but they are doing equal work in their own environment and that’s what we keep forgetting,” Dawn Fairbanks said. Her son, 31-year-old Evan, is hearing impaired and developmentally delayed, she explained, and so he would be unable to be a part of the workforce.
“If they have a bad day or if there’s a little issue with any of their health or mental issues, a like-minded environment like a sheltered workshop they understand that and they can deal with that. I don’t think that Evan would be able to cope,” she said.
Ontario is eliminating provincially-funded sheltered workshops, mostly run by not-for-profit organizations, where people with intellectual disabilities do basic tasks for minimal pay. Opponents of the program, originally created as a temporary place for people with disabilities to learn job skills, said it exploits individuals by paying them far less than minimal wage.
Susan Wahlroth, whose son Duncan McDonald has Down Syndrome and attended Torchlight Services, a sheltered workshop in Guelph, calls that view “misguided.”
“Our kids are happy when they go to these workshops, they feel proud, they feel empowered,” she said, adding that removing the program has “taken away their right to work, it’s taken away their choice of where and who they work with, it’s taken away their respect and dignity.”
Wahlroth said it has been difficult trying to explain to her son why his work has been taken away.
WATCH: Families fight to keep Sheltered Workshops going in Ontario
“He goes and he cries now at work. He was doing a good job, he valued the work he did, I valued the work he did. He was proud of that. He was independent. I cannot explain to him why somebody who doesn’t have a child with disabilities thinks that somehow it’s better for him to be out there competing with you and I for a job,” she explained.
Wahlroth started the “Meaningful Work Group” with a Facebook page dedicated to connecting families across Ontario whose lives have been affected by this change.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Community and Social Services told Global News 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.
Families marching at Queen’s Park hope politicians will hear their message in the lead up to the provincial election and reopen the discussion on sheltered workshops.
Bruce Poole sits on the board of Torchlight Services in Guelph, and has a son who attends programs there.
He looked to the legislature as he pointed out his message.
“I would say that we would like to sit at a table and discuss the concerns with you folks and to reconsider reopening the sheltered workshops across Ontario.”
Dawn Fairbanks expanded on that message.
“We’re hoping to be heard. All we want is our choice, it’s a basic civil right to work, it doesn’t say anything about working for money, it says work and that’s what we want to give them back,” she said.
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