The federal government's announcement to shut down a wastepaper disposal plant sparked public outrage as it was reported 50 individuals with disabilities would lose their "jobs". While this sudden change would indeed impact the daily routine of 50 people with disabilities (and this is certainly something that must be addressed), the public outcry and government's quick extension of this program ignore the real problem at hand.
This program isn't a form of employment for persons with disabilities. This program is part of a larger system that routinely promotes exploitive labour as a policy solution for persons with disabilities. This is not acceptable.
The coverage of this specific case has ignored some very important points with respect to this labour. While some people did ask important questions about these "wages" ($1.15 an hour), much of the media coverage on this issue defers back to OCAPDD (the agency that runs this program) to clarify this issue. This is where a critical lens is lacking.
There is a very good reason why OCAPDD classifies this pay as an "honorarium" rather than a "wage". This is a purposeful measure to get around existing employment standards. This is also why these types of programs do not classify recipients as "employees" but rather frame these experiences differently. In OCAPDD's case, these activities are framed as "enclave-type work experiences for adults with developmental disabilities." Yet, in terms of drumming up public support for this program, OCAPDD had no problem framing this issue as one in which 50 individuals with disabilities would callously lose their "jobs" because of a dispassionate government decision.
OCAPDD's executive director was quick to address the publics discomfort with these low wages, claiming in news reports their "ideal" aim was to get workers to a minimum wage and suggested the reason the agency is not there yet is because this program was establish "long before any concern about that kind of standard." This isn't true. In 1973 the Welch Green Paper noted concerns with scandalously low wages within community-based sheltered workshops and suggested the need for more "normalized" labour relations that took into consideration the needs of families, individuals, and industry. We have known for a long time that these kinds of programs are problematic - to frame this discomfort as a new issue or concern is disingenuous.
In fact, there is ample research that illustrates the success of non-exploitive program alternatives. This includes research that compares these types of programs to supported employment models and finds persons with disabilities overwhelmingly prefer supported employment. Additionally, research on this issue also finds non-exploitive models are more successful in terms of transitioning into paid employment, facilitating stronger social networks, and indicate significantly higher levels of success in a number of indicators linked to inclusion. In short, research show us the many ways OCAPDD's model fails the employment and inclusion goals of persons with disabilities (if you want to learn more on this issue the National Disability Rights Network has a great piece).
There are bigger questions we need to be asking including the role of various levels of government in supporting these programs, corporate incentives in contracting this labour out and parallel impacts this has on existing workforces, why people with disabilities are not being hired directly by these contractors, and greater transparency in terms of how agencies like OCAPDD operate both as a social services and a business.
This is not to say that participants did not enjoy these activities, or that the federal government does not have a responsibility to these individuals. Rather, this case illustrates the need to critically evaluate supports and services that provide profit and cost-saving measures for organizations and contractors at the expense of persons with intellectual disabilities. There are solutions that support the training and social needs of participants without violating employment standards - we need to demand these.