Disability advocates call for more training

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A Westman advocate for people with intellectual disabilities is questioning the sincerity behind the province’s latest announcement, which promises historic funding for the disability services sector.

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A Westman advocate for people with intellectual disabilities is questioning the sincerity behind the province’s latest announcement, which promises historic funding for the disability services sector.

Whitney Hodgins, who is autistic, said the funding announcement is welcome news but she’s worried about the timing.

“I do have concerns that this is just a one-off, lump-sum payment,” said Hodgins. “And that we’re actually not going to see any long-term longevity investments in our disability community at all. Because as we know, this year is an election year and is typically when people pile a lot of money into programming.”

“I do have concerns that this is just a one-off, lump-sum payment,” said Whitney Hodgins. (Submitted, file)

The Manitoba government on Tuesday pledged $104 million to support the disability services sector, including $82 million to raise the baseline hourly wage for workers to $19 to help with staff recruitment and retention.

An additional $21.4 million will go to the province’s Community Living disABILITY Services, which supports adults with intellectual disabilities achieve fulfilling lives in their communities.

It is the largest increase for programming and wages for the disability services sector in the province’s history.

“The historic funding will have a tremendous impact on the lives of children with disabilities and adults with an intellectual disability, their families and the staff who support them, now and for generations to come,” Premier Heather Stefanson said during Tuesday’s announcement.

Staff turnover is a huge problem, according to Brandon Labour Council president Kirk Carr. He said increasing wages may help, but it should have come earlier.

“Kudos to those who are getting the increase. They need it,” said Carr. “But where was this announcement years ago? Why didn’t they care before, or during the COVID-19 pandemic?”

It’s important to pay employees in the disability sector for the good work they do because it shows they are valued, said Hodgins. But there was something missing, she added: money to train staff.

“We’ll have upwards of over 100 professionals working with us through the duration of our lives, so how can we ensure that they’re properly trained? There was no mention of that in the government’s announcement,” Hodgins said.

There is a two-year diploma program at Winnipeg’s Red River College for those who want to work in the disability and community support sector, but no face-to-face program of its kind is offered in Westman.

In Virden, the executive director of an organization that helps people with intellectual disabilities said they don’t have the luxury of hiring from a large pool of interested graduates.

Virden’s Association for Community Living is a residence that provides 24-7 care and services for its 14 clients, plus a day service Monday to Friday.

Executive director Shelley Savy said she supports the wage increase, and added her challenge is not in keeping employees — it’s attracting those who have been trained.

“Training is primarily done in-house,” Savy said. “The sector has been pushing for comprehensive training or recognizable training for years and years, but it’s just never really happened.”

Debra Roach, president of the Family Advocacy Network of Manitoba, had a sister who was in a community living residence and required 24-7 care in Winnipeg. That’s the reason why she supports and speaks up for those with disabilities.

Roach helped lobby the government for the wage increases along with Abilities Manitoba, the Alliance of Direct Support Professionals of Manitoba and People First of Canada. She said this funding announcement was needed to raise awareness about the sector itself.

“We want the quality of care to be elevated, and yes there’s work to do, but hopefully we can bring about standardized training for those to work with people who have disabilities,” Roach said. “This is a step in the right direction.”

» mmcdougall@brandonsun.com

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