Toronto

Adults with disabilities need to earn minimum wage for sense of 'belonging,' parents say

Six young adults with developmental disabilities have been permanently hired by a North York shipping and packing firm. Their supervisors say the money means less than the sense of value and belonging.

6 young adults with developmental disabilities have been permanently hired by North York firm

From left to right: Efrat Avraham, assistant program director Tal Bar, Terri Quint, Carolyn Fingold, Jesse Saperia, Alex Warren, Dori Ankri, program manager Ashleigh Molinaro. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC)

Inside a Toronto warehouse, Terri Quint is one of six adults with developmental disabilities hard at work folding cardboard.

"We are making boxes!" Quint, 28, says excitedly at Stalco, a packing and shipping company based in North York.

The group comes in to work every Thursday for four hours, and since this past January, they've been getting paid for it.

After more than two years of on-site training, Stalco has made all six of them permanent part-time employees, paying them the minimum wage of $14 an hour.

They are some of the lucky ones.

Many adults with disabilities lost their jobs when the province's then-Liberal government passed Bill 148, known as the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, in 2017. Among other things, the new law made it mandatory to pay people with disabilities at least minimum wage. But some employers say they simply weren't able to.

The Ford government has delayed the decision, which has only added to the controversy, but all Quint knows is she's happy to be getting paid for what she's doing.  

"My parents ask every day if they could have a loan from me!" Quint said, laughing and beaming with pride.

For many in this group, Stalco is their first paid job.

The group comes into work every Thursday from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. They work among other Stalco employees, performing tasks such as folding boxes, preparing kits and labelling. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC)

The six young adults, three men and three women, are all part of DANI (Developing and Nurturing Independence), a charitable organization that provides programming and training for adults with disabilities. In 2016, it approached Stalco about possible opportunities in its warehouse.

Chris Gray, Stalco's director of distribution, says the company jumped onboard immediately, agreeing to train a group in entry-level tasks, such as "building boxes, helping to prepare kits, and labeling.

"Many employers don't know how important work is for [people with developmental disabilities]. They don't know how dedicated and how capable they are," said Ashleigh Molinaro, DANI's program manager.

"It's important because adults with disabilities are many times forgotten about. Here, they are treated equally, and the expectation is to be as productive as anyone else," assistant program director Tal Bar added.

"This is the next stop the next progression of what we want for our adults," said Susie Sokol, who founded DANI 13 years ago with a group of six other parents who had children with disabilities.

Sokol's daughter, Talia, for instance, has been diagnosed with a condition called global delay. It takes longer for her to reach certain development milestones.

Terri Quint, left, says she loves being part of a team and she wants more hours. DANI founder Susie Sokol, right, says the groups feels 'valued for who they are' when they are paid the same as everyone else. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC)

Sokol says students with developmental disabilities need a place to continue practising the skills they've learned after they leave school at 21. That's why she and the other parents created DANI.

"We didn't want our children sitting at home regressing, which is often the case," she told CBC Toronto. 

"We also teach them new things such as vocational skills, in the hope they will get some employment." she said.

Though DANI also works with adults with physical disabilities and mental illness, most of the program's current 36 participants have some form of developmental disability. These include Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder and varying levels of of intellectual delay.

Sokol says Stalco is the first company to employ them.

Equal work for equal pay

When the Wynne Liberals passed Bill 148, it covered all people with disabilities, including those working in sheltered workshops — segregated spaces set up by provincially funded, not-for-profit organizations, where people with disabilities perform tasks and learn job skills.

In return, they are often paid a tiny stipend.

Though the bill is still in limbo, courtesy of Premier Doug Ford, many sheltered workshops had already been phased out by the time the PCs came to power.

Last summer, a group of parents in Renfrew, Ont., met with Ford, asking him to restore the exemption that had allowed their children with disabilities to work for less than minimum wage, because to them, a small paycheque is better than nothing at all.

Former Ontario lieutenant governor David Onley says 'this movement towards giving minimum wage - at least - is North American wide. It’s a phenomenon that has been occurring over the last several years.' (Kelda Yuen/CBC)

But David Onley, the former lieutenant governor of Ontario who lives with a disability, thinks the minimum wage requirement is "a good idea overall because the abuses over the past decade have just been horrible.

"There are instances of people being paid five dollars a week, and oftentimes less," he said.

"It's couched as 'job training' or 'preparing them for something,' he said, "and that sounds good, but when you push them by asking, 'Well, how many have you placed in the past year?' the answer is usually, 'zero.'"

Director of distribution for Stalco, Chris Gray, seen here with Molinaro, says 'they are here like clockwork. We never have any issues of absenteeism. More than that, they actually love coming to work.' (Kelda Yuen/ CBC)

Gray points out the adults from DANI who previously volunteered before being hired at Stalco were never part of a sheltered environment. He says it was always the intention of the company to hire them and pay them minimum wage once they were deemed ready.

"The long-term goal would be for them to take on more hours and hopefully expand as much as they are able to," he added.

Sense of value and belonging

Molinaro says it's about more than dollars.

"I would say the most important part of being employed is the sense of belonging; of feeling valued in the community and giving back, " she said.

Carolyn Fingold says she enjoys all the tasks, but her favourite is putting products into boxes. (Kelda Yuen/ CBC)

Sokol agrees that it gives them a great sense of self-worth and belonging.

"It's this amazing pride of, 'I can do this. I'm standing beside you, I'm doing what you're doing and I'm getting paid just as much. And I'm taking this money home like my parents, like my siblings,'" she said.

Meantime, when asked what she does with the money she makes, Quint smiled and said gleefully, "Makeup and clothes!

About the Author

Kelda Yuen is a reporter with CBC News in Toronto. She is a two-time Edward R. Murrow Award winner with a penchant for stories focusing on the arts and human interest, and those that aim to better understand diverse communities. Kelda began her career in Beijing where she was a reporter and anchor. When she's not in the field, she's probably at the movies. Email: kelda.yuen@cbc.ca 

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