At age 32, Ken Power landed his first real job – full-time, a regular paycheque and benefits – working at Gypsy Tea Room in downtown St. John’s.
Two years later, he’s become a valued employee, an integral part of the crew toiling in the restaurant’s cramped basement kitchen.
“My job’s dishwasher. I do cleaning. If anyone needs help, I do it,” Mr. Power says. “I loves it.”
Since he left high school, Mr. Power has lived at home and collected disability benefits. He’s done a few odd jobs like roofing, but is not really sure if he got paid.
“People with developmental disabilities kind of fall off the radar when they become adults,” says Sean Wiltshire, chief executive of Avalon Employment Inc. “They also get taken advantage of something fierce because they’re marginalized and tend to have limited social interactions.”
Avalon is a Newfoundland and Labrador not-for-profit that specializes in supportive employment – finding meaningful work for people with disabilities by working with employers to make practical accommodations.
Mr. Power gets paid the same wage as other employees, but Avalon provides “support dollars” to the employer – usually a couple of dollars an hour - if additional training and oversight are needed.
Adam Woodland, the manager of Gypsy Tea Room says: “The right question isn’t ‘Why would we hire Ken?’ it’s ‘Why wouldn’t we?'”
He said Mr. Power, unlike many workers who do casual labour like dishwashing, is reliable and loyal. “We’re not doing this as charity. Ken is a person who fits the job and he does the job well,” Mr. Woodland says.
Mr. Wiltshire, who has been promoting supportive employment since 1992, says there has been an important attitudinal shift in recent years.
“Employers used to see hiring someone with a disability as a way to look good. Now, it’s an economic decision, and that’s how it should be.”
Traditionally, people with developmental disabilities have worked in sheltered workshops for menial wages, or cycled through endless training programs.
Mr. Wiltshire says this approach was based on the false assumption that people with development disabilities don’t have skills, and need to be coddled.
“Ability isn’t the problem. Willingness to work isn’t a problem,” he says. “The principal barrier to employment is people’s attitudes.”
Clients are usually referred by social workers or community agencies. “The first question we ask is: What do you want to do? A lot of them say: ‘You’re the first person who’s ever asked me that,’” Mr. Wiltshire says.
Funding for supportive employment comes from federal and provincial governments. It varies a lot between jurisdictions, but Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the broadest and most established programs. A study found that for every $1 supportive employment receives, the federal and provincial governments avoid $3.09 in spending for other programs.
“People who work pay taxes, they don’t get social assistance, they don’t use food banks, and so on," Mr. Wiltshire says. “Inclusion is good economics.”
One of Avalon’s first clients was David Thistle. He lived in the Waterford Hospital in St. John’s for 35 years and spent his days wandering the manicured grounds.
When he was asked, Mr. Thistle expressed a love for gardening, so they found him a job landscaping. He would later work at Wendy’s, as a cleaner and a baker before retiring.
“We don’t do training, we do jobs, and that’s an important distinction,” Mr. Wiltshire says. “Training people for jobs that don’t exist is patronizing and wasteful.”
The agency also provides ongoing monitoring and support. “Getting a job is easy. It’s keeping it that’s hard,” says Shelley Andrews, an employment counselor at Avalon.
She says that the biggest challenges are not work-related but helping people who have often been in rigid and protective institutional or family settings their whole lives manage their new-found independence.
“Personal hygiene, getting enough sleep, cleaning the apartment, managing money, having a girlfriend – those are things we have to sometimes help navigate,” Ms. Andrews says.
People with disabilities can receive social assistance but that leaves many feeling unfulfilled and condemned to living in poverty.
“Having a job normalizes people’s lives. It gives them a schedule and a purpose, and social connection,” Mr. Wiltshire says. “Having a paycheque is more than money, it says ‘I’m valuable.’”
When she started working at Shoppers Drug Mart in Conception Bay, N.L., early this year, Samantha Bishop, 22, was painfully shy. But, as she stocks shelves and cleans, she interacts with customers, and has gained tremendous confidence.
“Sam has really come out of her shell,” says front-store manager Loren Allen. “This is not just a job, it’s about building a self-confidence and a sense of belonging."
The store has worked closely with Avalon over the years and hired a number of employees with development disabilities.
“We have a culture of inclusion here - we believe our staff should reflect our community,” Mr. Allen says. “We also want good, reliable workers.”
Neil O’Dea, 31, has worked at the Shoppers for more than six years. He has autism and likes routine and repetitive tasks.
“Neil likes to have a daily, detailed task list. He follows it to a T and he’s proud when it’s completed,” Mr. Allen says.
Working with people with disabilities has been a little more work for him as a manager, but also a learning experience. “You realize that every employee has limitations and strengths, no matter who they are.”