Nova Scotia

Disability support organizations adapting to new COVID-19 reality

Groups that help intellectually or developmentally disabled Nova Scotians learn life and work skills have been forced to change the way they do that because of COVID-19.

Split shifts, fewer on-the-job interactions, less business, but more online supports

The computer lab at Summer Street Adult Service Centre in Pictou County. The organization has had to adapt during COVID-19. (Emily MacNeil Photography)

The 60 people who work at LakeCity Woodworkers assembly plant and showroom in Dartmouth, N.S., are back at their jobs building furniture and filling orders, but it's a much less social workplace than it was seven months ago.

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the operation. Danielle Pentland, director of client care at LakeCity Works, said it was most noticeable in the lunchroom.

"Lunchtime was probably the most fun time to be at LakeCity," she said. "Our client lunchroom was always bubbling with activity.

"They were always watching Knight Rider or Dukes of Hazzard. It was a lot of fun to go and visit in the lunchroom and now it's just completely empty."

LakeCity is one of 30 organizations across Nova Scotia whose mission is to provide people who are intellectually or developmentally disabled with job training, life skills and paid on-the-job experience.

Pentland said the LakeCity facility shut its doors from March 13 to Aug. 10, shifting its focus from the assembly line and in-person training to online counselling and home support.

Danielle Pentland is director of client care at LakeCity Works in Dartmouth, N.S. (Submitted by Danielle Pentland)

Clients living at home relied on family for help, but according to Pentland those living in group homes bore the brunt of pandemic restrictions.

"Those facilities were pretty much on lockdown for four months straight," she said.

"Everything that they would normally do, they were unable to do. All of our clients, they do have a disability, they have mental illness and for a lot of people isolation and mental illness is an incredibly dangerous combination."

Across the province, in Pictou County, administrators at Summer Street Adult Service Centre were grappling with the same situation and trying to adapt to helping the people they serve.

"Some people live pretty lonely, isolated lives and that's only been enhanced, so reaching out virtually is not ideal but it's certainly was better than not reaching out at all," said Bob Bennett, the centre's executive director.

His organization's three main programs, life enhancement, skills development and employment services, are operating at 50 to 60 percent overall when compared to pre-COVID.

Summer Street's catering and banquet operation, which generates revenue to help pay for those programs, is only bringing in a fraction of the money it used to.

"The social enterprise revenue stream on our financial statements, so to speak, is probably at about 20 per cent of what it was the year before," said Bennett. "There's a lot of people that we would normally employ, who are our own clients working in that area, who [don't] have work."

Bob Bennett, the executive director of Summer Street Adult Service Centre, is shown this week at the Nova Scotia Legislature's standing committee on community services. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Both Summer Street and LakeCity not only reached out online, they worked with other organizations to provide other supports and even delivered care packages to those who could no longer come to them.

But the isolation has taken a toll on some of their former workers who are no longer able to come to work.

"We have two clients who were elderly to begin with, and they declined fairly quickly in COVID and they are no longer coming to LakeCity," said Penland. "Their group homes made the decision that they didn't think it was safe because of how much they had destabilized during that time."

And it's not just the mental toll on individuals keeping some disabled Nova Scotians from returning to their workplaces, according to Mike Townsend, executive director of Directions Council for Vocational Services Society.

The council is the umbrella organization that speaks for the 30 groups that offer disability support services in Nova Scotia.

"The reality is that given the physical space limitations that we may have, which would vary by agency, not everyone has been able to return yet," said Townsend who estimated overall the sector was running at "one third to half capacity."

Mike Townsend is executive director of Directions Council for Vocational Services Society. (Submitted by Mike Townsend)

He estimated that physical distancing rules, necessary as they are, are costing the groups.

"The revenue from those operations helps us to sustain and grow our operations and many of the things [that support] the mission of those agencies."

All three administrators said they were grateful the provincial government had continued funding their organizations throughout the pandemic but each is worried about looming budget shortfalls.

Townsend said he'd been "very impressed" with the close relationship he'd had with the Department of Community Services, speaking almost weekly with department officials since the virus was first detected in the province.

As for the almost inevitable need for more financial support, he said that conversation was still to come.

"We haven't really had significant discussions yet about what the longer term picture looks like, but the Department of Community Services has certainly indicated their strong interest in continuing to work with us, in terms of helping to support agencies to deal with any of the more significant financial impacts, including impacts associated with the loss of fundraising and social enterprise revenue."

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