Thunder Bay's Monte Parks Centre slated to close in next 5 years
Ontario aims to get people with intellectual disabilities out of sheltered workshops and into the community
The executive director of Community Living Thunder Bay says her group is excited to find new employment opportunities for their clients, following the Ontario government's decision to phase out sheltered workshops for people with intellectual disabilities.
Lisa Foster told CBC News that people working at places such as the Monty Parks Centre in Thunder Bay usually earn far less than minimum wage.
She said the plan going forward is to help them find jobs in the community.
"Employers — more and more — are understanding those myths about people with disabilities aren't true," she said.
"They want to work. They show up. There's low turnover. If they have the right support and accommodation, they have lots of skills, and are pretty solid workers that they can depend on."
Community Living Thunder Bay is developing a plan to ensure families and individuals still receive the emotional support and companionship they found at the sheltered workshops, Foster added.
Helping people 'get real jobs'
The phase-out of sheltered workshops will take place gradually over a five year time span.
The goal of the change is to foster more inclusion of employees with disabilities in the workplace.
"Most of us define ourselves by the work we do, and for many years people with disabilities just didn't have access to real jobs in the community … It's about helping people get real jobs," she said.
About 40 people work two days per week at Thunder Bay's Monty Parks Centre, which is known for baking dog treats that are sold to the public through the K-9 Delights Bakery. The bakery will eventually be phased out, as well, said Foster.
It's fairly repetitive, straightforward work, and employees make very small amount of money, she said.
"There isn't the revenue to pay them at a higher wage. So they're making less than $1 an hour, in some cases, and there's a whole fair wage issue with that," Foster said.
"Why should someone who has a disability, not make, at minimum, a minimum wage like everyone else?"
Thunder Bay employers step up
Foster told CBC News a story of a man who had spent 25 to 30 years at the centre and was thrilled to try something new.
"He got a job a Merla Mae [ice cream shop] this summer and absolutely loved it," she said.
"It just opened his mind and his thinking about, 'Yes, there are other things I can try'."
Thunder Bay employers are stepping up to help provide jobs for these workers, Foster added. Employers include Winners, Home Depot, Tim Hortons, pharmacies, and auto-repair shops.
"We have around 40 employers who have opened their doors, embraced inclusion and have helped people, and hired people," she said.
"So we're not worried that we won't be able to find people work. I think this community is incredibly open-minded about this."
Having a new network of suitable jobs in place is key, as the sheltered workshops are phased out, she said.
"People need a place to go to, and something to do, and a purpose in their day," Foster said, noting the workshops had fulfilled that for many people, for many years.
"They have strong connections and friendships there and part of the planning we've had to think about is how to maintain those connections — and ensure people can still spend time with people."