Meet the Startup Plugging Gaps in Disability Workshop Funding

Meet the Startup Plugging Gaps in Disability Workshop Funding
Credit: TriSoap's Facebook fan page.

What you need to know

Craft workshops are often the only chance for graduates of Taiwan's special needs schools to make a valuable contribution to society. But with funding in short supply, the system is leaning on startups like handmade soap specialist TriSoap to bring down costs and keep the workshops in business.

Underfunded and unable to self-sustain, Taiwan’s “craft workshops” are turning to collaboration with startups to stay afloat.

Craft workshops are an essential bridge that offer graduates of special needs schools who cannot manage the demands of regular employment an opportunity to enjoy the benefits of stable and productive work. The government first established the initiative in 2009 to boost rates of employment among people with disabilities in Taiwan – currently 11 percent, compared with a national rate of 4 percent.

Aside from the lack of funding, new craft workshop openings across the country cannot keep pace with the number of students graduating from special needs schools. With the lack of mainstream employment opportunities, many capable special needs students have no option but to stay home — adding to the 23,328 people registered as unemployed with a disability in 2016.

But as the government struggles to provide adequate funding, entrepreneurs like social work student turned startup founder Yin Yu-ling (尹又令) are stepping into the breach. Yin’s company, TriSoap (三三吾鄉手工皂), collaborates with the workshops to improve their product design, branding and operations, ultimately easing the strain on their funding as increased revenue offsets their heavy costs.

Yet TriSoap is a small company attempting to address a gaping hole in Taiwan’s support infrastructure for its disabled citizens. Yin says he is “filling in the gaps left by the government.”

What are craft workshops?

Each workshop takes in 20 students aged 15 and above and is staffed by social workers and special needs teachers.

Craft workshops are designed for people whose working skills and self-management abilities are not suitable for larger scale shelter factories (庇護工場) but whom it “would be a shame” to consign to daycare or live-in institutions, according to Lin Zhu-fang (林竹芳), director of Star Workshop in Beitou, a craft operation run by the Foundation for Autistic Children and Adults in Taiwan (FACT). Such placements only allow attendees to engage in leisure activities and can cost up to NT$10,000 (US$332) a month to attend, Lin says, adding that the workshops aim to provide the students with a space to feel productive and fulfilled.

“We do not have enough staff to work on marketing or operations to make the workshops self-sustainable.” – Lin Zhu-fang (林竹芳), director of Star Workshop

As a job training institution, the expense of running craft workshops is viewed as the shared responsibility of “the government and nonprofit institutions,” says Professor Wang Yun-tung (王雲東) of National Taiwan University’s Department of Social Work. They are usually run under the umbrella of larger charity organizations with the financial firepower to cover the costs via public donations, he adds.

The government provides salary coverage for one social worker, three special education teachers and one administrator per craft workshop. It also covers rent and administration expenses. “Craft workshops take a publicly-owned and nonprofit-run approach,” explains a staff member from the Taipei City Government Department of Social Welfare’s administration department, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Yet, each year, an average craft workshop is left NT$1 million (US$33,000) in the red, says Lin, the Star Workshop director. “We do not have enough staff to work on marketing or operations to make the workshops self-sustainable.”

In order to keep these workshops running, students learn how to make saleable products in return for a NT$3000 monthly tuition fee – for example learning how to package coffee and tea.

Students work 20 hours a week and receive an average of NT$800 to NT$1,200 “reward cash” at the end of each month, depending on their work performance.

The below-minimum-wage (Taiwan’s minimum wage is NT$133 per hour) “reward cash” is “ exempt from labor laws, as it doesn’t really count as employment,” says Professor Wang.

TriSoap

“To turn craft workshops into a social enterprise is nearly impossible, they need social businesses to support them,” Professor Feng Yen (馮燕) of NTU’s Department of Social Work says.

Staff at these workshops are good at understanding the needs of people with disabilities given their professional training, but do not necessarily understand business operations, which is where social businesses can fill the gap, she contends.

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Credit: TriSoap's Facebook fan page.
A selection of TriSoap's products.

TriSoap is responsible for branding, marketing, product design, sales, and operations – everything from managing social media to order tracking.

Yin, the startup’s founder, spent half a year perfecting the formula for handmade soap, attending soap-making classes in his spare time, before teaching the production process to students with Down syndrome at the Lee Shan Hsien Foundation in Taitung.

Once finished, the soaps are shipped north to the Star Workshop in Taipei, where students with autism help package them into market-ready products.

But TriSoap prefers to focus on the production process, which includes additions of scent and color from imperfect (and therefore unmarketable) fruit and vegetables, often donated and delivered by local farmers, over the people behind the product.

“Would you promote a product and say ‘a normal person made it?’ If not, why do we say ‘a person with disabilities made it’?” Yin asks, voicing his frustration at how people with disabilities are often objectified by branding.

They hope people buy their products based on quality and not sympathy – “a far more sustainable business model,” Lin of Star Workshop adds.

Workshop shortages

Social enterprises may represent a quick fix to funding problems but demand for place at craft workshops still far exceeds supply.

“We have a new workshop opening in Shilin, but it’s already filling up, as we have 20 people in the lineup list from our current workshop in Beitou,” says Lin.

Without suitable employment opportunities, students that graduate from special needs schools have no choice but to stay home and attend daycare or live-in institutions.

From 2012 to 2017, almost half of high school graduates from Taipei School of Special Education (臺北啟智學校) and Wenshan School of Special Education (文山特教學校) stayed at home. Only 10 percent found “normal employment,” 19 percent joined a craft workshop, and the rest went to daycare or live-in institutions.

In May 2016, the government advocated for craft workshops to be opened in elementary schools, which have a growing number of vacant classrooms due to the declining birthrate in Taiwan, but the proposals met with limited success due to community opposition.

Home-to-work proximity is especially important for students with Down syndrome as they become easily lost on long-distance commutes. The Taipei City Government currently operates a total of 14 across eight districts but says its eventual goal is to have a workshop in all of its 12 districts.

‘Mainstreaming’ employment

“Craft workshops can’t necessarily solve all problems, distance for one is a challenge,” says Professor Wang, adding that craft workshops are isolated work environments and “mainstreaming” the employment of people with a disability is also an important task.

According to the Disability Act (身心障礙者權益保障法), put into effect in 2006, public institutions with more than 34 people are required to have 3 percent of their workforce staffed with people with a disability; private companies with more than 67 people are required to hire 1 percent, or at least one person.

As of the end of 2016, 8 percent of private and public institutions had not met their quota, amounting to 26 public institutions and 1,470 private companies. They have been fined a total of NT$509,953 by the government.

“Some companies would rather be fined than employ people with a disability,” Yin says in disbelief. “Disability is no barrier. Society is to blame for not providing suitable opportunities.”




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