Nova Scotia

'Real work for real pay' at heart of new store hiring people with disabilities

More Than a Label Consignment will open in Middleton, N.S., on Wednesday, which is National Inclusive Employment Day.

More Than a Label Consignment in Middleton, N.S., will pay employees minimum wage

Calvin Dufresne is one of the people who will work at More Than a Label when it opens Wednesday in Middleton, N.S. (Submitted by Jaymee-Lynne Dowell)

After seven years of teaching people with disabilities the skills they need to get jobs and live independently, Jamie-Lynne Dowell faces a frustrating reality. Despite all the work, few businesses are willing to hire them.

She's decided to do something about it. The mother of three is now taking a leave of absence from her day job to open a consignment shop in a Middleton, N.S., storefront that will hire people who are disabled. The mandate is "real work for real pay."

"We're sidelining them and expecting them to live off government funds by not giving them a chance to give their value back to society," said Dowell, a community support services worker with the Annapolis County Municipal Housing Corporation.

More Than a Label Consignment will open Wednesday, which is National Inclusive Employment Day, and goes by the slogan "labels are for clothes, not people."

Dowell, who is taking a leave until December from her community support job, said she believes the economy would benefit from employers opening doors for people with both physical and intellectual disabilities and accepting them into the workforce.

She said jobs can also help lessen isolation and mental-health issues that tend to come with being labelled with a disability.

Dowell envisions More Than a Label as an inclusive place for people with disabilities to work, build experience and gain her as a reference before applying for employment elsewhere.

Employees will work as volunteers until the store makes some income, then they will be paid minimum wage. A few months afterward, Dowell plans to give them a raise. She said fair pay will help the employees build their sense of self-worth and know what they deserve when they move on from her store.

Most of her clients get disability benefits from the government but can make up to $350 per month before their income affects their disability cheques.

Dowell has invested about $800 of her own money in the store so far and there has been about $2,000 of costs covered by donations from community members and local businesses.

50 cents an hour

An alternative for people who haven't been able to get jobs is taking part in government-funded workshops where, Dowell said, they are paid 50 cents an hour. Dowell said she's been told that the sense of normality that comes with working is in lieu of minimum wage.

Chris Chute, a client of Dowell's with Asperger's syndrome, said he has worked at a convenience store for 50 cents an hour. When that didn't work out, he tried road work, but he has a sensitivity to heat and couldn't work outdoors in the hot sun.

"It's been difficult at best but I'm managing to work through it by trying to find other jobs elsewhere," he said.

There aren't many jobs available for people with disabilities, though, so he's had to take what's available.

Dowell said in situations where her clients work jobs they dislike or that make them uncomfortable, their attitude toward the work is often blamed on their disability. Employers don't tend to acknowledge that the behaviour stems from disliking the job.

"I can advocate for them," Dowell said, "and make sure that that doesn't continue to happen, that they have the same fighting chance as anybody else."

Chute said he's looking forward to working at More Than a Label.

"I think it's a great idea. It's a good way for those of us with special needs to get out in the community quicker and learn some new experiences," he said.