Working with the developmentally disabled



Ron Bull/torstar news service


Theresa Flores, a support worker helps Bill Sherman , who is intellectually challenged, prepare dinner. Flores spends four hours a day, six days a week with Sherman.

Theresa Flores wakes at 4 a.m. on weekdays and heads to her job as a baker at a Tim Hortons near her North York home.

The widow and mother of four comes home at 2 p.m., makes dinner for the family, changes her clothes and then sets out for her second job — as a support worker for an intellectually challenged 41-year-old man named Bill Sherman.

They hop on the bus as Sherman leaves a drama and arts day program run by a charity and discuss what he wants to do. Sometimes they go for a swim in his apartment building’s pool or take a walk. They make dinner and join in evening activities at a drop-in centre.

On Saturdays, Flores’ day off at the bakery, she comes to Sherman’s apartment for a full afternoon of shared activities. Sherman used to live in a Toronto group home but after specialized training he is living independently in an apartment with the support of Flores.

Flores’ full-time job at the bakery pays $17 an hour. Her part-time job with Sherman, four hours a day, six days a week, pays $13 an hour.

Flores’ income is paid by Community Living Toronto, a non-profit agency dedicated to supporting the developmentally disabled. It gets its money from the Ontario government and fundraising drives.

Half of the workers employed by the agency have other jobs. The low pay, averaging $33,000 a year for a full-time worker, means they have to take on other work in order to stay in the field.

Turnover is high in this field because the work is low-paid. A province-wide study by consultants KPMG in 2000 discovered that people employed in the developmental service field earned 25 per cent a year less than those with the same qualifications in education, health and social services.

Of the 1,100 workers employed by Community Living Toronto, more than 60 per cent are casual, part-time or relief. They recently ratified a three-year-agreement with the agency that gave them a two per cent pay raise and will gradually change their assignments and workplace locations. Workers in residences and group day programs will become interchangeable and hours of work will be scattered throughout the week.

There is a concern, says Kathy Johnson, social service co-ordinator for the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 2191, that clients might lose consistency in the workers who care for them as a result of these changes. Then there’s the problem of having to hold down another job, she says, which would be impossible if a worker had hours that are all over the map.

Agnes Samler, executive director of Community Living Toronto, argues the agency needs more flexibility and is moving toward providing individualized programs convenient to the client with the disability. Even with all these pressures, people continue to make this their life’s work.