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Achieving social and economic inclusion: from segregation to 'employment first'

Law Reform and Public Policy Series

Over 50 years ago parents started meeting in communities across Canada to share their concerns that their sons and daughters with intellectual disabilities were not being given the opportunities to fulfill their potential; that they had no valued place in society. Denied access to public education that their own tax dollars were helping to fund parents began demanding a different future, began making a claim on governments and society for what we now call full citizenship and inclusion.
These courageous parents faced closed doors and incredulity at every turn. So they took matters into their own hands, and in the name of a more promising future for their children, they began their own schools. As children grew into young adults, and workplaces and the labour market remained similarly closed to the possibilities, parents formed local associations and created activity centres and sheltered workshops. Their adult children had somewhere to go during the day, the chance to learn some life and social skills they had been unable to develop because of exclusion in their early years, and the chance for some respite for their parents. Through the 1950s and 1960s our associations for community living built an impressive infrastructure of special education, sheltered workshops and activity centres, and residential care arrangements, inspired by a vision that people with intellectual disabilities were as deserving of support and a chance in life as anyone else.
By the 1970s, there were some voices among families and leaders of our movement which began to challenge whether this was enough. Was our sole purpose to build this kind of service capacity, on the assumption that since so many doors were closed – and people didn’t seem to belong in regular education, or works places, or with access to regular housing markets – all that people with intellectual disabilities deserved were special, separate services? As a human rights discourse began to grow, these assumptions were questioned. Over the last thirty years, we have worked to ensure that people with
intellectual disabilities take their rightful place in society, alongside their brothers and sisters, classmates, peers, co-workers, and other citizens. Our vision of belonging, inclusion, dignity and equal respect has most recently been expressed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified by Canada in 2010, and which recognizes in Article 27 “the right of persons with disabilities to work, on an equal basis with others; this includes the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities.”
Our challenge now is that our vision outstrips the service capacity we have built. It’s time to catch up with ourselves. The Canadian Association for Community Living undertook this study to look at how we might chart a path from the infrastructure we have collectively built for sheltered workshops and activity centres, to supporting people to access the labour market and fully inclusive workplaces like other Canadians, within the context of what we have termed an ‘employment first’ policy framework. Some visionary local associations and leaders are showing the way forward. We have immense know- how in local associations across the country. Our mission must now be to turn this knowledge and infrastructure we have built in the direction of securing social and economic inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.
We hope this study and its recommendations for the federal and provincial/territorial governments to take leadership for an ‘employment first’ policy and program approach for labour market inclusion of youth and adults with intellectual disabilities gets traction. We look forward to working with all our partners in supporting and resourcing the necessary local leadership and capacity to make it a reality.
Michael Bach Executive Vice-President Canadian Association for Community Living

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