Researcher investigating business models to help marginalized groups

Frances Owen, Anne Reedhead, Gillian MacKinnon

From left: researchers Frances Owen, Anne Reedhead and Gillian MacKinnon

A Brock research team hopes to give key insights into the social and economic structures that enhance opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.

Frances Owen, an associate professor of Child and Youth Studies, recently received a grant for the project “Social Business and Marginalized Social Groups.” The $30,000, two-year award is part of a larger $1-million grant, received by a coalition of businesses and research institutes around the GTA, under the Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The overall CURA project involves 14 case studies of social businesses, which are organizations that put as much emphasis on a social need as they do on business. This includes co-operatives, micro-credit programs and the social enterprise movement.

Owen’s research group is studying a set of social business enterprises supported through the Common Ground Co-operative Inc. in central Toronto. Anne Readhead, a masters student in Applied Disabilities Study at Brock, will interview partners at the four businesses.

“We’re looking for their descriptions and perceptions of the experience,” said Readhead. “We want to hear their attitudes about the program, to see if it is a good work activity, but also what they see as successful, and what they would recommend to others who are considering this model.”

The partners are adults with intellectual disabilities who have started businesses as owner-operators. They have done this with the support of Common Ground, which includes job coaches and a diverse range of operational services and educational training. Current businesses include three locations of the Coffee Shed (University of Toronto, Surrey Place and Jewish Vocational Services), and the Lemon & Allspice Cookery, a catering company.

Jeannette Campbell, Common Ground’s executive director, said the study will illuminate the empowerment of the partnership model for self-employment in what she called social purpose enterprise.

“They are decision makers. They vote other partners in or out of the company. They are the signatories for the business, and they have the pride of ownership and self-determination that does not exist in other employment opportunities,” Campbell said.

If not for social purpose enterprise, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities must navigate a competitive employment market or participate in day programs and sheltered workshops that provide a stipend for work completed.

“The research is important in that it will illustrate not only the financial benefits but the social benefits for the partners and the community at large.”

Brock student Gillian MacKinnon, in her honours year of Child and Youth Studies, is a researcher and transcriber on the research team.

“Part of the challenge of this project is the challenge of discourse,” Owen said, who has an extensive background in researching and advocating for the rights of those with intellectual disabilities. “This is not quite work placement and it is not quite a day program. We are developing the language as we go.”

The CURA project, which includes 40 co-principal investigators and 22 partner organizations, is led by University of Toronto researcher Jack Quarter. Researchers hope to discover successful models of employment for those who are marginalized, including visible minorities, first-generation immigrants, and people living in poverty.

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