Having read the draft code to regularise and re-define sheltered employment in Ireland, Anne McCarthy, Stewarts Hospital Services, Palmerstown, wonders if perhaps it raises as many questions as it answers.


In December 1997, the National Advisory Committee on Training and Employment (NACTE) issued its report Employment challenges for the millennium (NACTE 1998). Noteworthy recommendations in that report highlighted weaknesses in the existing system and stressed that responsibility for employment and training services, business development and job creation should not remain with the Department of Health and Children (DHC). The steering group recommended that overall responsibility for the vocational training and employment of people with disabilities should be assigned to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (DETE) (p.38).

The NACTE report recommended that a comprehensive programme of disability awareness and equality training should be available to educators, trainers and representatives of the social partners and public servants representing training and employment services. They also stipulated that people with disabilities should be involved in the design and delivery of such training (p.40). A pivotal recommendation was that ‘Labour market policy and practice should achieve full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of employment and training by the year 2005’.

As part of the process of conversion from sheltered work to sheltered employment, and from supported work to supported employment, Recommendation 24 called for the introduction of a national system of accreditation for sheltered workshops and sheltered employment, and Recommendation 30 called for employment equality legislation to require employers to make reasonable accommodations to remove barriers to the participation of sheltered and supported employees.

In June 2000, the government implemented a restructuring of statutory responsibilities for training, work and employment services for people with disabilities. In line with the fundamental principle of mainstreaming, responsibility for vocational training and employment (including sheltered and supported employment) were assigned to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, while the Department of Health and Children retained responsibility for day activity, rehabilitative training and sheltered work.

Code of Practice for Sheltered Occupational Services

The Programme for prosperity and fairness (2000) contained an undertaking that ‘The Department of Health and Children will focus on the introduction of a Code of Practice for sheltered workshops’ (page reference) . To this end, a working group on a code of practice for sheltered work was established in August 2000-

A key outcome of the review undertaken by the working group indicates that an improvement on the range, resourcing and management of sheltered services for people with disabilities is required, to result in a realignment of existing services and the introduction of procedures and standards.

The draft Code of practice for sheltered occupational services [SOS] (dated 5 July 2002) poses several important issues regarding status, contracts and a person’s working identity.

Among the Working Group’s conclusions (in the July 2002 draft document) are that:

  • A number of sheltered workshops and individuals currently engaged in commercial/productive activities would be more correctly classified as employment, thereby coming within the remit of The Department for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
  • Day activity services are essentially care services that include a range of personal and developmental opportunities. A separate review/evaluation is needed to clarify the optimum role and development of such services.
  • A redefinition of sheltered workshop services needs to take place, necessarily involving moving from a service-led model to a user-led model of service delivery.
  • SOS service users may and should be encouraged to avail of part-time external employment opportunities. In such cases, the status of an individual as employee must be recognised for the duration of the employment period. A person with a disability cannot be a service user and an employee of the same service provider at the same time.
  • A service provider cannot be a service provider and employer, in respect to the same person, at the same time.
Comments and queries

The definition and categorisation of existing sheltered services in intellectual disability will be a pivotal task for the larger services who provide comprehensive and multi-skilled provision. The distinction in status—whether one is in the category of work, employment or activation—will prove difficult.

Is removing the worker concept from occupational services such a good idea? What about the vital sense of worker identity afforded to clients working in our agencies? Will this mean a wider division between those doing work and those doing activation programmes? Are service users with a person-centred programme (requiring involvement in both categories) to vary their status several times a week? To what extent will this code diminish the rights and opportunities of a service user with limited capacity to employment in the setting of a sheltered occupational service?

Of course, the status of employer is to be welcomed. Of course, all work should be the responsibility of the Department of Enterprise, Technology and Employment. Of course, sheltered settings need to be improved on several levels. But how are the service providers to provide for the numerous service users who have dignified worker identities, while receiving rehabilitative services at the same time? Will a person’s capacity to enter a contract affect their existing sheltered employment within their agency?

Those training services which continued with the EU accreditation system for training centres will be at an advantage when implementing the proposed code of practice for SOS, which appears merely to extend the procedures already in place for accredited training centres. The Code will require the larger and more comprehensive agencies to analyse the identity of each of their services and develop appropriate structures for each of them.

The end of contract work, or its transfer to a sheltered enterprise, will be no bad thing. However, what I call the ‘status differential’ can only be addressed by legislation. An employee will have all the legal protection and rights of the mainstream workforce. The person receiving occupational services will not have the same legal status as the person employed in sheltered work. To be effective, rights must have a statutory basis.

The Code proposes induction programmes and procedures which are excellent—and are very similar to those already practised in the accredited training centres. However, how relevant will they be for those with very limited capacity? If the procedures are to be fully applied, advocates will be needed to interact with service providers on service users’ behalf. Consequently the identification and training of strong advocates will become a key role in the future development and training of staff. Transparency (partnership/working-with) in policies, procedures and practices with carers, advocates and parents will, hopefully, become the order of the day.

The disciplinary procedures are very clear, but there is no consideration for the management of challenging behaviour, or characteristic behaviour problems generally. There is little room for the professional input of the service providers who may need to spend much time devising structures for the code’s implementation.

The image of special transport is one which either gets ignored or priorises the generosity of the benefactor. The Code recommends that transport be devoid of disability signage, and to have as positive an image as possible.

The requirement that all SOS staff must be qualified will have considerable implications for in-service training, which should be mandatory. The advantages of being in a large parent body are considerable when it comes to training in the areas of health and safety, first aid, therapeutic responses to aggression and violence, freedom of information and minimal lifting. Within the new Code, each service will be required to have all procedures laid down in a Quality Manual.

External and part-time employment

The semantics of employment and work come into sharp focus in Part Two of the Code, and this holds the key to the whole issue. The legislation and status afforded to all employees applies to those in sheltered and supported employment.

Are those at present employed in sheltered work going to lose their worker status and go to SOS because they do not fulfil the employment criteria? A pivotal issue is that the worker identity and status of service users and employees is a complex matter of law. In my opinion, the sooner agencies have a legal advisory service or law department on site the better. A Disability Act would also make life a lot easier for professionals with the onerous task of implementing all future Codes of Practice. Can an employee and an SOS user work in the same unit, e.g. a restaurant? Will that restaurant require enterprise status in order to employ them? Who will address the potential confusion regarding the legal status of unit/enterprise/undertaking? Who will address the potential confusion regarding legal status of client/service user/rehabilitative employee?

This SOS code is not enshrined in law. Employment equality is enshrined in law. All workers with intellectual disabilities will need the protection of the law, whatever their employment. Is there not a big inequality issue here, in the absence of comprehensive legislation? Perhaps a Disability Act, preceding the code of practice, could be a first step in ensuring that all are equal before the law, regardless of a person’s occupation, employment or status.

Will existing accreditation teams for training centres be asked to give accreditation for sheltered occupational services as well?

How does the proposed code of practice harmonise with the new guidelines in nursing practice and residential care?

Will existing person-centred plans be accepted within this code?

The questions are endless. Who can answer them for us?