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Last week, the federal government ended a longstanding contract for document shredding, throwing 50 people out of work.

In this era of cuts, pink slips for a few dozen paper-pushers wouldn't normally merit much notice. But the move sparked outrage because all the workers have intellectual and development disabilities and some have been doing the work for as long as 35 years.

So, on the weekend, in a bid to limit the political fallout, the government reversed itself and extended the contract for three more years.

Ending the contract was dumb. Extending it was worse.

What these workers – who by all accounts do their jobs well – need is not pity, but respect. They need to be afforded the same rights as other Canadians, including the protection of the country's labour laws.

Under the paper-shredding contract, Library and Archives Canada pays the Ottawa-Carleton Association for Persons With Developmental Disabilities $124,600 a year. With that money, the OCAPDD operates a sheltered workshop, where its clients get work experience and are paid an "honorarium." The stipend is roughly $2,000 a year, the equivalent of $1.15 an hour.

The minimum wage in Ontario is about to be raised to $11.25 an hour; the only exceptions are students under 18 and liquor servers (who depend on tips). There is no exception for people with disabilities, nor should there be.

Sheltered workshops come under many guises and euphemisms, such as "life skills," "training programs" and "employment training." They may be well-intentioned, but they are outdated and counterproductive, a concept that the federal government should be working to eliminate, not perpetuate.

People with disabilities deserve "real jobs for real pay," says Laurie Larson, president of the Canadian Association for Community Living.

What the two million Canadians living with disabilities – physical, psychiatric or developmental – want is to live up to their potential, to be full citizens like other Canadians.

Having a job is good for your health. It not only provides income but helps build independence and self-esteem, especially for those who have been marginalized. Yet, people with disabilities – most of whom can and want to work – have a horrendous unemployment rate, close to 50 per cent.

According to a 2012 report, Rethinking DisAbility in the Private Sector, there are about 795,000 Canadians with disabilities who are able to work but unemployed. The principal reason is prejudicial assumptions about ability to work and the cost of accommodation.

In fact, the report notes, hiring people with disabilities is good for business because it results in higher productivity, less turnover (which leads to lower training costs) and better responsiveness for customers, who appreciate a work force that reflects their community.

The paper-shredding workers all receive provincial disability benefits, which amount to about $800 to $1,000 a month. One of the reasons they are paid so little is that if they earn more than $200 a month, those payments are clawed back. This is a striking example of governments working at cross-purposes, and the dated condition of our approach to social welfare. Ottawa shouldn't be justifying exploitation by saying workers are receiving provincial benefits.

Instead of sheltered workshops that isolate people from mainstream society, workers with disabilities should be provided with supports for employment that help them integrate.

A good example of this approach is Avalon Employment Inc. in St. John's, a non-governmental organization that: a) assists in the job search for people with barriers to employment; and b) helps employers find good workers.

Avalon will, for example, help a person with Down syndrome or autism find work at a coffee shop and provide a coworker to assist in training and skills building, at no cost to the employer. The workers are paid a wage like everyone else and the assistance usually isn't required for long.

Doesn't that approach – integration, not isolation – make more sense, economic and otherwise, than the outmoded approach of sheltered workshops?

The Harper government has a pretty good record when it comes to supporting people with disabilities, notably the creation of the innovative Registered Disability Savings Plan. It has also actively promoted workplace diversity and encouraged employers to hire workers with disabilities.

But talk is not enough. Ottawa should be leading by example. Contracting workers in a sheltered workshop to work for a pittance instead of paying a decent living wage flies in the face of those policies. To show real leadership, the federal government should embrace the Employment First concept, which promotes systemic change to fully integrate people with disabilities into the workplace.

The ultimate goal in a democracy should be to give everyone a voice and purpose. To do so, we need to build inclusive communities, from schools through to workplaces.

We don't need antediluvian policies that relegate people with disabilities to second-class citizenship.

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