Social Enterprise and the Employment Inclusion of People with Disabilities 

According to the Social Enterprise Council of Canada (2016), “Social enterprises are businesses owned by nonprofit organizations, that are directly involved in the production and/or selling of goods and services for the blended purpose of generating income and achieving social, cultural, and/or environmental aims. Social enterprises are one more tool for non-profits to use to meet their mission to contribute to healthy communities.” See more at

Social Enterprise is not a new concept; organizations around the globe have been utilizing this business model to create skill development and economic participation opportunities for marginalized groups for decades. Although the term Social Enterprise was not used until the early 80’s, it could be argued that organizations like Goodwill have been conducting Social Enterprise since 1902.

Social Enterprise has attracted increasing attention of the Disability and Employment Inclusion sector over the past decade as ‘sheltered workshops’ (used most widely with people with intellectual disabilities or chronic mental illness) have fallen out of favour. Is Social Enterprise a viable, ethical mechanism for the economic inclusion of people with disabilities? The answer is somewhat dependent on each organization’s definition of Social Enterprise and their understanding of best practices around this interesting, sometimes innovative model. So what exactly are the ‘best practices’ for Social Enterprise and its utilization in Supported Employment?

Social Enterprise Europe (2014) states that “Social enterprises are radically different from private sector businesses.” They have also highlighted a number of factors which can serve as criteria for defining a business as a true social enterprise, stating that social enterprises “aim to generate sustainable sources of income, but measure their success through:

  • Specifying their purpose(s) and evaluating the impact(s) of their trading activities
  • Conducting ethical reviews of their product/service choices and production/consumption practices
  • Promoting socialized and democratic ownership, governance and management.”

One doesn’t have to search long to discover that there is no universally accepted ‘best practices’ document specific to Social Enterprise as a work / skills building option for people with disabilities. Beyond this, it remains an issue that there are also a wide variety and expanding number of definitions of social enterprise – Doeringer (2010).

With regard to research around the use of Social Enterprise as a Supported Employment model for people with disabilities, I found a recent, extensive document which is worthy of consideration.

Success Themes in Supportive Employment –Enterprising Non-Profits 2014 – serves as an excellent resource to help inform and guide organizations in their development and implementation of Social Enterprises. I like this document a lot in terms of its scope and the variables being considered and addressed. I like the fact that the ‘target populations’ are the ones that Supported Employment professionals actually work with and that ‘workforce mixture’ (percentage of people with and without disabilities) is addressed.

It should also be noted that Social Enterprise Canada has a great website which includes a wealth of information on Social Enterprise. It’s probably the best resource of its kind that I’ve ever come across.

Social Enterprise – A Best Practice Guide can be found online and downloaded for free as well. The title of this ‘Best Practices’ document is a bit of a misnomer in that it is more of an extensive How-To Guide than a philosophical exploration of best practices.

It must be stated that there are some relevant concerns around Social Enterprise as it pertains to the employment of people with disabilities. Human Centered Design and Design Thinking dictate that service designers create systems, services and innovations which effectively serve the ‘end user.’ With regard to employment service, there is more than one ‘end user’ so we must consider the needs of people with disabilities as well as the needs of the labour market (including employers). With this in mind, it’s not difficult to see issues around Social Enterprises that have not been designed well – issues related to perception and disparities in implementation from organization to organization, specifically:

  1. Some initiatives are a Social Enterprise in name only and more closely reflect ‘sheltered work environments’ which facilitate neither inclusion nor poverty reduction. (Such initiatives would be staffed solely by persons with disabilities and service provider staff, pay less than minimum wage and not include persons with disabilities in their ownership nor management).
  2. Given the history of institutionalization and segregation of people with intellectual disabilities, the concept of service organizations staffing their own businesses with their own clientele has some negative optics – and as such, necessitates a high level of transparency and accountability.
  3. Social enterprises, and the aforementioned ‘congregating’ of people with disabilities doesn’t always resonate with the larger business community and may be perceived as a nonprofit construct which leads to ‘inaccessible talent.’ Mark Wafer (an employer and inclusion advocate) has made some strong statements around service providers essentially ‘withholding’ people with disabilities from the labour market and hiding them in sheltered environments.

My thinking around best practices in social enterprise is that such practices should be consistent with the most inclusive, socialized definitions like those established by organizations such as Social Enterprise Canada, Social Enterprise Europe and Ashoka. Where people with disabilities are being served, Supported Employment / Employment First best practices should apply as well (wages, integration / inclusion, natural supports, etc.)

Much like Supported Entrepreneurship, Social Enterprise, at its best, can offer people the opportunity to build their work and interactional skills in an accommodating environment so that their overall employability can be increased over time (where traditional competitive employment environments might not be able to accommodate this ‘pace of personal development’ for some people). If the Social Enterprise is integrated (with at least 30% of the employees being outside the target group), and employees are being offered at least minimum wage – and ideally a living wage – that’s a good start. Further, best practices which could mitigate the obvious power imbalances and increase the transparency and accountability around organizations employing their own clientele might include:

  • Employees have a voice in the business and the division / utilization of profits – for example; persons with disabilities are involved at the management / governance level of the Social Enterprise and /or the social enterprise is co-owned with employees.
  • The employment goals of each person are documented at onset and (minimally) annually thereafter to ensure that employment interests outside the social enterprise are being supported and pursued.
  • The same opportunities for advancement, leadership positions and professional development exist for employees as for agency staff.
  • Community / Industry partnerships are built in order to increase exposure of clientele to opportunities and relationships outside the social enterprise (as well as exposure of industry / community to the clientele being served).

Social Innovation is critical to the field of disability services and we must reach beyond the limited scope of our sector and seek new perspectives, ideas and models for inclusion and capacity building. Professionals and advocates must, however, remain extremely diligent to ensure that the people we serve, and the communities whose engagement we seek are included and involved in the design process – and that they remain the focus and the primary beneficiaries of our work towards full citizenship and inclusion.


Social Enterprise Europe –

Social Enterprise Canada –

Ashoka Canada –

Doeringer, M. (2010) Fostering Social Enterprise an Historical and International Analysis. Duke Journal of International and Comparative Law. Retrieved from

Sean McEwen, CASE Board, Calgary Alternative Employment Services Director