A Brief History of Employment Services in Ontario for People Who Have a
Disability: The Pendulum Swings
My personal experiences go back to the mid 70’s which just happens to be close to the advent of sheltered workshops and community employment services for people who have a disability in Ontario so let’s start there – in the beginning, so to speak.
The 70’s: Proliferation of the Sheltered Workshop System
In the 70’s we had Federally-funded and operated Canada Manpower Centres and Provincially funded Vocational Rehabilitation Services (VRS) and Developmental Services (DS), both under the umbrella of the Ministry of Community and Social Services (MCSS).
At the time the Canada Manpower Centre was where most people went when they were looking for work. I remember standing in front of the job posting boards where employers placed their job ads, jotting down referral numbers and lining up to see a counsellor hoping he or she would give me the details of the jobs I had selected and not screen me out because my credentials didn’t quite meet the employer’s requirements. Although I personally never had the opportunity I understand you could also be referred to training programs. And, of course the other big service at the Canada Manpower Centre was the administration of Employment Insurance (EI) claims.
While anyone could utilize the services of the Canada Manpower Centre the focus was clearly on the traditional ‘unemployed’ which quickly came to mean those in receipt of EI – ‘on the dole’ as the expression goes.
The VRS Act funded two primary services – Employment Counselling for people who struggled with the mainstream Canada Manpower process and Sheltered Workshops. VRS Employment Counselling was operated directly by the Provincial Government and available to people with employment barriers including sole-support mothers, people in trouble with the law, high school dropouts, welfare recipients and people who had a disability. At the time, Ontario was not the multi-cultural place it is today and didn’t see a need for the array of immigrant services we currently have.
Although I didn’t realize it back in the day, the target audience of VRS Employment Counselling was clearly those in receipt of welfare.
The VRS Act also funded sheltered workshops. This was done through provincial transfer payments to non-profit and charitable organizations like the March of Dimes, Goodwill Industries, Associations for Community Living and others. Sheltered Workshops were segregated centres where people who had a disability performed work contracts that the agencies arranged with private businesses. This was usually done under the auspices of ‘training’, although people rarely graduated and typically received weekly stipends ranging from $5 to $40.
The Ontario government passed the DS Act in 1974 and, over time, many vocational services for people who had an intellectual disability – sheltered workshops and later, supported employment programs – transferred to, or were established under, that act. This was also done through transfer payments to charitable organizations, primarily Community Living Associations, who ran these sheltered workshops under the ARC Industries banner. This is where I first cut my teeth in the disability field in 1976.
Throughout the 70’s sheltered workshops grew and flourished under these two funding streams. At the time, it was not understood that people who had a disability were capable of holding regular paid jobs and most of those who went to the Canada Manpower Centres or VRS Employment Counsellors were typically referred to a sheltered workshop.
The 80’s: A Time of Reckoning
By the early 80’s government was concerned about the lack of productivity, poor revenues and lack of flow through as people seemed to go to these workshops and never leave. Costs were escalating and anticipated revenues were not realized. There was also a growing awareness that other models of non-segregated options were emerging in many communities and critics began to publicly refer to these workshops as sweat shops.
At the same time ‘employees’ of sheltered workshops went to the courts accusing their operators of unfair labour practices. Although the judgments did not support the position that the disabled workers should be treated as ‘employees’ for the purposes of competitive remuneration, they advised that sheltered workplaces should provide ‘trainees’ measurable training programs if they were to avoid future litigation. This potential liability provided further incentive for the provincial government to look to reform the existing sheltered workshop system.
In 1982 an MCSS task force launched the critical “Review of the Sheltered Workshop System in Ontario”. Based on the results of this study, business advisory agencies were set up around the province to help sheltered workshops improve their business practices and earn more revenue. Agencies like IBMS (Industrial Business and Management Services) later to become CMCS (Central Marketing Consulting Services and eventually Centre for Management of Community Services) were established in 1984. But they were barely out of the gate when the supported employment model hit the scene.
A strategy, promoted primarily by advocates of people who had an intellectual disability, the supported employment model challenged the thinking of the day. This model asserted that, with the right supports, people who had a disability could, in fact, hold down paying jobs. It also challenged the notion that people had to engage in never-ending training and prove their capability before being given the chance to work. Rather, it put forth the ‘place and train’ model based on the belief that: ‘most people learn to work on the job’.
Toward the end of the 80’s government, still concerned about the vast number of people who were occupied in sheltered workshops and potential liability, launched the ‘minimum wage project’. This trial, which was piloted in a few regions of the Province, looked at the combined income of workshop earnings and disability benefits, and topped this up to ensure the combined income was equal to minimum wage. While it is uncertain as to whether or not this would have avoided future lawsuits, it proved to be very expensive and sheltered workshops struggled to make significant financial improvements that could contribute to these costs.
The 90’s: Age of Enlightenment
By the late 80’s and early 90’s government, seeing the success of supported employment and realizing that sheltered workshops would never achieve the goal of self sufficiency and fair remuneration for their participants got on board. The ‘Alternatives to Sheltered Workshops’ task force was launched and policies were developed to encourage and support this model. A former Director of Policy for MCSS was even so bold as to say: “There will be no more sheltered workshops in Ontario”.
The success of the supported employment model was evident and it continued to grow throughout the 90’s and into the 2000’s. In a 2003 study that followed 2,500 people who had a disability that engaged employment agencies for assistance to get a job, people who had an intellectual disability were the most successful of all disability groups at both finding and retaining their jobs, due in large part to the supported employment model. Based on its success this model was quickly adopted by many organizations that supported other types of disabilities. While the specific strategies and interventions varied – expertise and supports for someone with a spinal cord injury are vastly different from those for someone who has an intellectual disability or a hearing impairment, etc. – the model was seen to be flexible and adaptable.
One by one, sheltered workshops closed and the few remaining diminished over time as most were in phase out mode, closing their doors to new admissions. Resources were diverted to supported employment programs and life skills and community activity programs for those who did not want to work.
But for some people who have a disability, finding a job is difficult and financing the necessary supports and accommodations expensive. And for many – people who have a disability, parents and staff of service agencies – change is difficult. Sheltered workshops were, for the most part, safe and stable. The debate as to whether to abandon the sheltered workshop system altogether and reinvest those resources in non-sheltered alternatives such as Supported Employment or to retain the system in its existing or modified form continues to rage on, both amongst service providers and within MCSS, to this day.
The 2000’s: Time to Shake Things Up a Bit!
1999 brought with it an entirely new construct for employment services and the not-for-profit agencies that provided them. The VRS act was repealed and replaced by the Ontario Disability Supports Program (ODSP) act. And by 2001 the ODSP Employment Supports (ODSP-ES) program was launched. Agencies were faced with a fee-for-service business model and the private sector was invited to compete in what had previously been sacra sancta for not-for-profit organizations. Three short years later the ODSP-ES program was refined and a new ‘pay for jobs’ system was established. Under this model employment agencies were only paid once an individual was successfully placed in a paid job.
One can’t argue with the fact that this forced agencies to be more accountable to achieve an employment outcome for those they serve – no job, no funding. On the flip side, however, are the pitfalls that unfortunately fall on the shoulders of the job seeker who has a disability.
Three problems face people who have a disability:
* The first assessment an agency is forced to make is: “Will it cost me more to find this person a job, and support them to retain it, than the government will pay me? In fact, who’s going to pay me for the time it will take me to reasonably assess and answer this question?”
Clearly this scenario leaves people who have more significant disabilities, where it may require more time and more support to find and retain a job, at a disadvantage. The resulting creaming effect defines job seekers as either ‘profitable’ or ‘money losers’ for employment agencies. Those who are not ‘profitable’ often face agencies that declare they are unable to provide the needed assistance and therefore continue to be excluded from the workforce.
* The second pitfall in the pay for jobs model is that any job is good enough for an agency to be paid. Much less attention is given to job quality and consumer satisfaction in this model – the quicker the placement, the greater the profit – resulting in a plethora of part-time, entry level jobs.
* A third issue is that agencies can no longer afford to provide the level of on-going support that some individuals need, often affecting their ability to retain their job or create a meaningful career path.
And to all this, add a poor economy to exacerbate the challenges.
While the Canadian Human Rights code and, soon to be, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act guarantees in law, the right to equal and fair access to employment opportunities there is no such right, or entitlement, to the necessary services and supports that many people who have a disability and/or employers need to ensure a successful job outcome.
Is there a solution to these challenges? Some of the more creative and often most successful operators have pieced together a complete employment service package by attracting funding from several of these government sources. Financing pre-employment preparation and training with funding from Employment Ontario and/or Service Canada’s Opportunities fund; job placement with funding from ODSP-ES; and, long term supports with funding from DS may not be an ideal way to operate, but if your primary concern is for the quality of service your clientele receives and good outcomes, you do what you need to do. Unfortunately agencies that currently receive funding from multiple government sources may soon be at risk.
2010 and Beyond: Age of Confusion
In 2008, the Canada-Ontario Labour Market Agreement was enacted, resulting in the transfer of responsibility and funding from the Feds to the Province. As described on the EO web site: “services under both Canada-Ontario labour market agreements will help Ontarians receive the skills training and supports they need to succeed in the workplace, including unemployed individuals (whether or not they are eligible for EI), newcomers into the job market, internationally-trained individuals working in low-skill jobs, and persons with disabilities.”
Since 2008, Employment Ontario has been developing a strategic plan to deliver these services. In January 2010 its service strategy for job seekers other than those who have a disability were announced and the disability strategy is anticipated to be announced later this year. However, a few key themes are clear:
* The government wants to streamline what appears to be a confusing delivery system and, in so doing, reduce the number of service contracts held with employment agencies.
* The government also wants to move to a generic ‘one-stop shop’ for the delivery of employment services – one door that all people who want to get a job, regardless of their barriers or challenges, will go through.
In theory, the one-stop shop may make sense but at least three questions remain outstanding: Will the expertise that has been developed over the last 25years by specialized disability agencies be lost? How much better will these Employment Ontario agencies be at servicing people who have a disability than its predecessor – Canada Manpower Centres? And ultimately, what will this mean to job seekers who have a disability?
On yet another front MCSS just released a new program for people who have an intellectual disability – Person-Directed Planning. The service objectives of this program are designed to:
* Increase the ability of adults with a developmental disability to direct the planning of their daily living to meet their own life vision and goals.
* Develop a person-directed plan that focuses on their participation in the community, including training and education, skills acquisition and the ability to obtain paid work or work experience/activities (e.g., volunteer work or sheltered workshops).
Without belabouring the point suffice it to say that, in this writer’s experience, ‘volunteer work’ adds to the barriers facing job seekers who have a disability and is fraught with perils. Equally surprising for most of us in the disability field, is that it’s been a long time since we’ve heard or seen sheltered workshops promoted as an acceptable option for people who have a disability.
The Pendulum Swings
What goes around comes around. We started with a one-stop shopping model with the Canada Manpower Centres. We built what appears to be a confusing and complex system of disability specific Employment Agencies with multiple funding models. And in 2010 we’re back to a one-stop shopping model administered by Employment Ontario. Let’s just hope that in the name of efficiency, streamlining and cost savings, we don’t miss the point about whose lives are at stake.
I’d like to think that we’ve learned a few things in the last 40 years – about the capacity of people who have a disability and the benefits of inclusion.
As for the move from the segregated sheltered workshops of the 70’s to more dignified, less costly, paid employment in the private sector and back to sheltered workshops in 2010… Do I need say more?
About the Author
Joe Dale has worked in the area of disability and employment for over 30 years. Currently Joe is the President of Vision Consulting, Executive Director of the Ontario Disability Employment Network and Manager of Ontario’s Rotary at Work initiative.
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