“A Place to Work Like Any Other?” Sheltered Workshops in Canada, 1970-1985

Dustin Galer


This article explores the emergence and evolution of sheltered employment in Canada during a period in which the discourse of disability and role of rehabilitation became increasingly contested. From the early 1970s to mid-1980s, sheltered workshops were an integral part of an evolving Canadian welfare state that provided employment to people who were unable to compete in an exclusive capitalist labour market due to physical impairments, intellectual disabilities, or mental health issues. As workplaces within a token economy, sheltered work did not reflect true employment relationships with workers earning “symbolic” rather than “real” wages. Though sheltered work was initially conceived as a strictly transitional part of the rehabilitation process, the workshop system was repurposed in the 1960s and 1970s to handle new pressures created by the deinstitutionalization movement. Workshops acquired new controversial meanings due to these changing workforce demographics, attracting increasingly vocal condemnation from disability rights groups. Eventually, critics launched campaigns to undermine public support for sheltered workshops which were painted as obstacles to the pursuit of full participation in society. Sheltered employment was thus situated at the vanguard of changes in the discourse of disability in Canada during this period and reflected emerging debates about the economic rights and opportunities available to people with disabilities in modern Canadian society.


disability activism, disability rights movement, work, employment, deinstitutionalization, sheltered workshop, vocational rehabilitation, token economy

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15353/cjds.v3i2.155


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