The adaptive and inclusive grocery store: joining the labour force through an adapted business

This is the question Virginie Dénommée and Philippe Harrison—winners of the MIS Civic Incubator 2023 Cohort—seek to answer with their adapted business project, which offers young people with physical disabilities the opportunity to develop their skills within an adaptive and inclusive grocery store.

Virginie Dénommée and Philippe Harrison — The adaptive and inclusive grocery store: joining the labour force through an adapted business

A missed opportunity

“Amid the current labour shortages, we are constantly amazed, as actors in the field of employment integration for people living with physical disabilities, that it is still so difficult for our clientele to gain access to work.”

While working together in a rehabilitation center, in a program focusing on the transition to adulthood of young people living with a physical disability, Virginie Dénommée, a guidance counselor, and Philippe Harrison, a specialized educator, began to dwell on the absurdity of the situation.

On the one hand, numerous organizations are struggling to fill the many vacancies in Quebec—more than 50,000 in Montreal alone, as of the third quarter of 2023, in sectors such as food service and retail. On the other hand, more than 15,000 Quebecers aged 15 to 24 and living with a physical disability (motor, hearing, visual, or language) are ready to work, yet face significant difficulties finding a job. This substantial labour pool is not regarded as part of the solution to the demonstrated need for personnel. Why not?

Barriers to professional inclusion

Philippe emphasizes that young people with disabilities are up to twice as likely to be unemployed as members of the general population. This, he says, is due to the obstacles they face not only in getting hired for jobs, but also in keeping them.

Companies may lack information about the real capacities of people with disabilities, and fear they won’t be able to meet their needs in terms of job requirements or accessibility of the work setting. They also fear potential liability for workplace injuries, and sometimes have preconceptions about the productivity of young people with disabilities, and the reactions of customers to them. Employers often expect new hires to achieve efficiency and autonomy relatively quickly, particularly in entry-level jobs that require little prior training or work experience.

As a consequence of this attitude, a person living with a disability may be dismissed after just one or two weeks on the job. Rather than invest time and resources in training, employers may decide that it’s cheaper simply to hire someone else.

Yet giving a person living with a disability just a little more time to learn can make all the difference. Research has shown that work experience during their studies is the most decisive factor in the adult employment of a person with a physical disability. This first contact with a job enables them to develop their problem-solving skills, work ethic, resourcefulness, and sense of responsibility—qualities sought after in all types of employment.

Redefining the adapted business

At this pivotal developmental period for young people with disabilities, Virginie and Philippe wanted to intervene by proposing a solution that would complement existing programs. As they noted, the available services focused on integrating adults with disabilities directly into permanent employment, based either on their current capabilities or on protracted training. But there was no solution for bringing young people into their first temporary work experience—into the formative student job that is so decisive in their long-term integration into the labour market.

The duo created a solution at the critical intersection of these needs. Combining their skills in special education and vocational guidance, Virginie and Philippe envisioned an adaptive and inclusive work experience for young people with disabilities in which apprenticeship is tailored to individual needs. The adapted business, in their conception of it, would function as a springboard to a more demanding work environment, supported by career guidance.

Could this solution take the form of a grocery store?

“A grocery store offers a diversity of tasks that develop skills that are transferable to other areas of activity. In fact, this solution seemed pretty definitive when we joined the Civic Incubator. We thought we would need help only with the financial side of things, because we lacked that skill. But that was to misunderstand the scope of the MIS program. There were a lot of other blind spots we identified.” — Virginie

Along the way, Virginie and Philippe questioned various elements of their project, including the solution itself. Did it present an opportunity for maximum impact, or should it be integrated in a complementary way into an existing ecosystem? What kinds of grocery stores might be willing to host this innovative experiment, in terms of both the values it conveyed and the accessibility it required for its young participants? These considerations led to the design of a pilot project.

It began with two young people in December 2023, in collaboration with the Le Détour collaborative grocery store in the Pointe-Saint-Charles district. Each week for three months, Philippe trained the two participants in tasks such as managing the cash register or arranging merchandise. This apprenticeship period was an opportunity to test hypotheses on a small scale before considering a wider deployment.

L’épicerie indulgente et inclusive : intégrer le marché du travail par l'entreprise adaptée - Un projet sélectionné dans l'Incubateur civique de la MIS en 2023

Part of the pilot project team at Le Détour grocery store.

“Because no one had ever tried this approach before, we weren’t able to find people to share their experiences with us. The pilot project was therefore essential to finding the information we need in the field, and so far it’s going very well. Every week is an opportunity to learn more—for us, our young people, and the cooperative staff! It all bodes well for the second phase, led by Virginie, which will be dedicated to assessing the experiences and career orientation of our participants. They already have ideas about the kind of jobs they’d like to do next!” — Philippe

Are you interested in the adaptive and inclusive grocery store project? Do you have an experience to share with Philippe and Virginie? Contact them!

If you’d like to find out more about the pilot-project partners and their mission, discover Le Détour, Bâtiment 7’s self-managed grocery store—affordable, collective, and a vector of social transformation.

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