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Opportunities greater now than ever for individuals with disabilities

Katie Fung, a local 17-year-old diagnosed with autism, completed a one-month placement at The Cupcake Junkie through Participation House’s Employment Readiness Program. Fung says the experience assisted her in preparing for job interviews, taught her proper job etiquette and improved her confidence.

By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express

Over the last few decades, individuals with disabilities have often gone from being shielded from society to having a wide range of opportunities to contribute within their communities.

Michelle Marshall is the executive director of Participation House, a non-profit organization that has been providing services to individuals with disabilities across Durham Region for the past 40 years.

For her, Participation House’s motto of “Celebrate Every Body” is a perfect reflection of how perception has changed.

“It’s changed significantly. I think we’ve moved from a society of care to a society of mainly integration,” says Marshall, who has been working with individuals with disabilities for 25 years.

When she first entered into her current field, Marshall recalls the focus was much more of a ‘one-size fits all’ approach.

“The care was very much a ‘parent model’. I think we’ve leaned towards a peer model [in recent years],” Marshall states. “As an institution, we felt the best way to provide services was to bring everyone under one roof and keep it a very controlled environment.”

Instead of separating those with disabilities from the rest of society, the focus is now on empowering them.

“In a philosophical way, we’ve moved from a handout to a hand up.”

As society’s view of people with disabilities has changed, so has how organizations such as Participation House offer services to their clients, Marshall explains.

“We’ve moved our services in the sector away from large, expensive models to more community-based resources.”

As an example, Marshall remembers a time when Participation House would “purchase tons and tons of computers for classes. Every time we needed an upgrade, that was a huge expense for us that went more to the infrastructure than to the services.”

Participation House receives the majority of its funding from the Ministry of Community and Social Services, however, Marshall notes their budget has been frozen for the past nine years.

While some aspects of the organization’s budget have seen increases, Marshall says they must always, in turn, look for ways to save money.

However, she doesn’t see this as a total negative, explaining that it has required them to dig deeper to find creative ways to deliver services within Durham Region.

“Now like anything, sometimes the best progress you make comes from situations where you have to look at things differently. So I don’t want people [to perceive] that our services have deteriorated as an outcome,” Marshall states. “Certainly, it’s been very difficult and will continue to be difficult. At the end of the day are we still providing quality services to people.”

At the top of the list of services provided by Participation House are the residential programs.

“Our largest budget is for group living, where we support people on a 24-hour model of care,” Marshall says. “We also have supported independent living, where the client lives on their own and we provide incremental services based on what their needs are. It could be anything from four hours a week up to 16 hours.”

Marshall says the transition to more independent living is not always an easy one, so they also offer a wide variety of help to bridge that gap.

“Generally, these are offered to people who are still living at home with their parents. So we really want to develop skills before they move to group living because the more skills they have, the less they require formal supports and services, and the more capacity we have to support more people.”

An example of this is a Life Readiness Program, which is offered in partnership with Durham College.

Through this program, clients of Participation House stay at the college’s campus for a week while learning about responsibilities such as budgeting, meal preparation and using the region’s transit system.

“At the end of the week, they end up with a binder of information and skills they can take home. So we call our Life Readiness Program the ‘respite that keeps on giving,” Marshall says. “Each person who participates in the program comes with a personal goal. So someone may say, ‘I want to learn how to do my own laundry’ and that’s something they can go home with…and it’s one less thing for [the caregiver] to do because they’ve learned a skill they can contribute.”

Marshall says when people with disabilities can learn these skills it gives their families piece of mind about what they are capable of.

“One of the challenges for people with disabilities is they are often seen as the ‘eternal youth’ because they are vulnerable. When you and I left home, our parents probably told us ‘I’ve taught you all that I can”, but parents of people with disabilities sometimes have the stumbling block of not being able to overlook the vulnerabilities,” she explained.

“When they come back and contribute to the household, the family starts to recognize their skills and abilities, which increases the likelihood they will be able to live independently one day.”

Participation House also offers resources to its clients in finding employment.

The Employment Readiness program allows clients to try out a number of different jobs over several weeks.

“It’s not like a co-op per say as they try out a number of different things. It’s really about them making informed choices, because they’ve often been sheltered from the opportunities that you and I would have that help you sort of establish what you want to do with your life.”

Through the Employment Readiness program, Katie Fung, a 17-year-old diagnosed with autism, was able to gain workplace experience at The Cupcake Junkie in Whitby.

Fung says the program assisted her in interview preparation, proper job etiquette and improved her confidence.

Rachel Southwell, employee development coordinator with Participation House, says The Cupcake Junkie was a perfect fit for Fung because of her enthusiasm for cooking and baking.

Southwell says it is empowering to see clients find a job they enjoy, especially when they completely come out of their shell and take on responsibilities without hesitation.

“It’s nice to be able to take a step back and watch the individuals get ready to go.”

The program also shows employers that individuals with disabilities are just as capable at performing tasks and maybe even better, Southwell explains, “because there is such a focus on detail and no deviation from what is expected by not taking shortcuts and making sure everything is done correctly.”

For Marshall, learning these skills is all part of the bigger plan on the road to independence for people with disabilities.

Participation House also offers an “up-skills life continuum” which, according to Marshall, sets out that plan.

“Historically, families have engaged with us when their son or daughter is looking for residential services…but when you bring them in residentially without developing the skills, we’re having to use huge resources,” Marshall says. “People with intellectual disabilities don’t have problems learning, their biggest difficulty is generalizing what they’ve learned and applying them to life.”

This is why it is so critical for families to have a plan when considering a move from the home.

“To get to the independent living, there are some really key things you have to consider. It depends on the person’s level of independence, their motivation and the network around them.”

Making the transition to independent living may not always be a quick change, but Marhsall says being properly prepared is the best choice for everyone involved.

“It could be a year, it could be two years, but it really shows the family that there is a process to get to that point.”