“I just got my certificate in 2018 for 20 years in a workshop…. They know that I want a job, they are still looking for a job for me.”
Jeannie Whidden, member People First Nova Scotia.
Real work for real pay has been a priority issue for people labelled with an intellectual disability across the country. Here in Nova Scotia this issue brings opportunity for growth and transformation. Sheltered Workshops are any place where individuals labelled with an intellectual disability are segregated and not getting paid fairly for the work they do. They are also sometimes called Vocational Training Centers, Adult Service Centres, Employment Training Centres, or Social Enterprises. These places are usually group settings where individuals labelled with an intellectual disability do real jobs for less than minimum wage, while they are supervised by non-labeled staff who get paid minimum wage or more. John Cox, co-founder of People First Nova Scotia says that he believes how a person is valued directly impacts the opportunities offered to them and that the creation of Sheltered Workshops show that society believed individuals labelled with an intellectual disability held little value in society.
Changes have been made People First of Nova Scotia (PFNS) recognize the significant changes that have been made since the Sheltered Workshop model began in the 1970’s but also wants to call attention to the need for further changes. The experiences of PFNS members at Sheltered Workshops vary. Some have very positive stories; other individuals have stories that would leave you feeling outraged and heartbroken. This article shares the stories of 8 PFNS members from across Nova Scotia ranging in age from their late 20’s to early 60’s to show this variety from a lived experience.
It starts long before adult life This segregated support model begins way before the time an individual reaches their adult life. Regardless of the generation of the people interviewed, there was a common theme in each story. Segregation began during their school years along with low expectations for the future. Members in their late 50’s and older were completely segregated in separate schools or “training centers” from a very young age. Younger members interviewed described being sent to Sheltered Workshops beginning as early as grade 10, with no support to explore other opportunities prior to leaving high school. Individuals who utilized the returning grad program were supported by EAs to try out community employment, while also attending a sheltered workshop a few days a week. As the end of the returning grad program approached the days spent in community employment decreased and time spent at the workshop increased with a final transition to full time work at the sheltered workshop.
Alex shared that he and his classmates went “to school [for] work placements at places like Sobeys and Foodland and working at other places like Avery’s farm market bagging apples. We were not paid for this and the EA would go with us.” He went on to say that he “went to [the workshop] too with the EA. They planned and prepared for me to go to a workshop not community employment from these work experiences.”
Alex is 33 years old and recalls going to work at a sheltered workshop right after finishing high school. He painted survey sticks, sanded picnic tables, did lawn care, bundled kindling, made dog treats and toys, and refurnished furniture. He worked from 9am to 3pm and got paid about $5 a day for this work. He explained that breaks were limited to two 15 min breaks and a lunch break and that other than those times he was expected to work.
Heidi Gallant, a young woman in her 20’s, described her experience as she was preparing to leave high school “I was in that left behind group… I was never asked about what I wanted to be or who I wanted to become. I was never asked where I thought my life was going. I was never asked any of those stimulating questions.”
When living in a supervised apartment program Heidi was encouraged to go to work at the local sheltered workshop. She agreed to try it as no other options were offered. She recalls thinking “uh, this is not for me, why am I here? This is not what I want to do with my life”. But she started attending and worked at various tasks. “[I] split kindling, I did sanding, I did sweeping and stuff like that and eventually moved over to the thrift store where I got to do more …like running the cash register, greeting customers all that. But you know at the same time I felt inadequate. I felt that I was doing something that I didn’t have the control over”. She says, “I was pressured to just give it a chance and after two years I had enough. You can only do so much in the space that you are given, and, in that space, I couldn’t strive or be myself. I felt trapped.”
Heidi talked about how during her time at the workshop, even though she was paid far below minimum wage (about 50 cents an hour), she and her co-workers were docked pay for not working hard enough, taking extra breaks, or taking sick day. She also said that her pay came as cash in an envelope – no cheques, and no pay stubs.
However, Heidi acknowledged that there were also some positives. She explained, “I liked the interaction with the people at the thrift store, I absolutely loved that. I also liked the short time they included in me the decisions that were made at the thrift store. It didn’t happen often, but I loved when it did. It made me feel important, like my words and opinions meant something.” She identified the social opportunities and the friendships and relationships she built with others as the most positive aspect of her time at the sheltered workshop.
Heidi tells a particularly poignant story of hopes raised and dashed. “I was offered a position at the thrift store, which was super exciting. I worked hard and enjoyed my time there. I was given real wages which was truly an incredible feeling. I felt like I had worth and value. After 3 months I got my pay, and it was back to cash in an envelope. I was super confused as to what happened. I was told the real wages were only temporary as part of some grant they had… It was an extremely defeating feeling”.
Jeannie Whidden, a long-time member of People First Nova Scotia is one of the many individuals labelled with an intellectual disability that believes in the value these workshops and services provide to others sidelined by society like herself. When asked why she believes so many individuals labelled with an intellectual disability are currently employed within a sheltered workshop setting she explained “There could be lots of reasons like they can’t find work or maybe because they know how to work but going is just better than sitting at home”.
Jeannie has worked for 23 years at the same sheltered workshop and has seen a great deal of change over that time. Like Heidi, one of the things she likes the most is the connection with people she experiences at her sheltered workshop. She says, “it is getting a lot better now in workshops because there is a lot more education and a lot more training and employability skills. They’ve [been] heading in the right direction slowly for a while now. I know it still needs to improve though. Real money for real work would be a good start.”
Jeannie explained that there are some opportunities for people at her workshop to earn real wages, but these are still quite limited. She proudly shares “I am actually working now every second Saturday that is minimum wage at the store our workshop runs”.
Noel says that he too was just “prepared to go into the workshop” when finishing up high school. When talking about his work there now he says “I do remotes, I insert remotes into bags, batteries, decals all that sort of stuff… I make 79.50 now every two weeks and I work …5 days a week”. He also “trained how to cook things, how to cut up mushrooms, green peppers, onions, … I learned some cooking skills”. Like the others interviewed Noel values the different friendships he has gained at the workshop.
While Noel has some good things to say about his experience at the workshop he also says that there have been attitudes from the staff where they are sometimes “being nasty and firm with everyone and very bossy types of persons which are hard to get along with.” When asked about whether he feels appreciated for the work he does each day he replied “depends. Some days yes, some days not.”
Tammy has been working for the same sheltered workshop for 17 years. She began when doing a transition to work program in high school where she was told the sheltered workshop
was a training opportunity. For the first several years she made just 50 cents an hour doing work in the bakery, painting, cutting kindling and bagging clothes. However, in 2008 she was offered work with the same organization that paid minimum wage. She explains, “There is a program through the [workshop] called focus on employment and they helped me through that get employed there with real wages.” She reports really liking her job now and feeling appreciated for the work she does.
Tracy speaks very highly of the sheltered workshop that she has worked at for the past 6 years. She explained that there is a combination of opportunities for both real waged work and work that is still paid less than minimum wage. She said “The ones on maintenance and stuff get the minimum but those doing readiness programs get an honorarium.”
She described the tone and expectations as supportive and understanding – “If you go to someone and say you need a little break for a moment away from things, they are really understanding… We don’t get everything done all the time, but we do not get in any trouble for that. We get some sick days or what they call mental health days or if you need to take the day off for an appointment or something. They tell me if I have to go away for People First to not worry about it, I do not have to take it as a sick day they know I am going out and doing something good.” And the training that is offered is real, valuable training – not just free labour. “That is what the job readiness is, with everything from resilience, or bullying in the workplace. We have a day where we work on goals, they goal we have set for ourselves. So, if someone wanted to improve their reading and writing they could work on that or can work on it one on one with somebody. There is even a driver’s ed course for those wanting to get their license.”
Tracy feels encouraged by the staff to explore a wide range of real employment opportunities. “[Staff] said they could see me out working and don’t want me to go just by the retail I had in school, they want me thinking more outside of the box type thing. They want me to think of things I like … They supported me to kind of try different things and find my path”.
Tracy’s sheltered workshop has a Participant’s Council which “developed what is called the bill of rights …they also help collect data from the participants about things they like or do not like, and we present that for the board so that they know and have our voices heard.”
Charlie Lemon is one of the founding members of PFNS and the current president. He recalls working at a sheltered workshop many years ago where “they didn’t treat us like adults, they treated us like kids”. Charlie now works full time for real wages in his community but left a legacy behind at the sheltered workshop that has grown and flourished, and continues to be one of the influencing factors today. He and his coworkers at the workshop started a Workshop Council. He says, “The Workshop Council made a lot of changes. They made a list of demands they took to the staff – some didn’t like it but we got a lot of accommodations”. Participant Councils, like the one Tracy described, have spread to a number of sheltered
workshops throughout the province since then and many have become highly influential – with their input directing strategic planning and program initiatives.
John Cox said during his interview “Real wages are needed. In workshops people are expected to act like, well I hate to say “real employees” where they are docked if they are late or missing work, they are expected to be on time and all the stuff that a normal or so-called normal employee would be expected to. A training allowance is a joke. It does not take anyone 50-60 years to train. People need to be valued for the work they are expected to do and, in my opinion, if they are expected to behave like real employees, they should get paid like real employees too. “ “It is time we change the policies,” said John Cox. “They need to call it what it is. The policies need to change, and society needs to start looking at individuals labelled with an intellectual disability through a new lens. See us like you do any other human full of potential and possibilities. Quit making things so cut and dry, we have needs that are different from others but that does not mean we have less value behind them”.
In Conclusion These interviews reveal many areas of concern that need to be addressed. A common statement from the interviews conducted was many individuals employed within these workshops are not given the choice of task or duty they wish to do. Breaks and social time is restricted to average labor law requirements. Real work is being completed but real wages are not being given.
The interviewees also report positive changes occurring that could transform sheltered workshops into places where people are supported to develop real employment skills that are then practiced in real jobs with real wages paid to them. Many of the people interviewed emphasized how important the friendships they have with the people they work with are to them and the value of these connections must be recognized. Heidi has some advice for how to best move forward with the transformation in how employment supports are provided to people with intellectual disabilities “Society needs to stop viewing us like our growth and potential maxes out, that we can only achieve a certain level before we can achieve no more. Understand, that even for those of us labelled with an intellectual disability, growth is infinite…Why not just ask us, you know, the experts? If you did, we would see far more success and transition happen and a huge social shift”.