By Keely Bujold1,
Student OT, class of 2013, University of Ottawa

This is my grandmother, Elaine May. She was an Occupational therapist who received the Order of Canada for opening a workshop which integrated physically and mentally handicap people back into society. Her hard work and compassion empowered the lives of many people at her workshop, by giving them the skills and tools needed to be autonomous and to contribute to society.

Mrs. May, who is now 88 years old, graduated in 1945 from the University of Toronto. She worked as an Occupational Therapist until the late 1970’s, a time in the history of occupational therapy where many changes and advancements occurred. Throughout her career, she worked at the Ste. Anne de Bellevue Queen Mary Veterans’ Hospital, The Montreal General Hospital, The Pasteur Hospital, the Montreal Rehabilitation Institute and at Recreation for the Handicapped.

Mrs. May talks about how people returning from the war with physical disabilities were often unable to return to work because the environment was not conducive (e.g. no wheelchair ramps, dips in sidewalks or lack of specialized buses etc.).

In 1967 while working at Recreation for the Handicapped, the McGill School of Social Work requested that a survey be done to find out how post rehabilitation patients were reintegrating into the community. This survey found that there were many architectural barriers limiting access to community facilities, furthermore many people prioritized gainful employment over recreational activities.

Recreation for the Handicapped was able to publish, in time for Expo 67, an accessibility book; however it was not within their mandate to address the employment issues. Therefore Mrs. May explored the possibilities of opening a multi-disability workshop to reintegrate her clients into meaningful employment.

After consulting with the MacKay Centre and the Montreal Rehabilitation Institute she applied for a summer Local Initiative Program (LIP) employment grant from the federal government, which provided for a salary of $100/week for 3 people. Unfortunately this did not leave much money for expenses and as a result the first few years were a struggle. Thankfully a member of the community was not using space in a warehouse for a local business and generously donated this to be used rent free.

As there was no such facility in Montreal at the time both French and English hospitals referred a total of 86 clients with multiple disabilities to the workshop the first year it was in operation, bringing French and English associations together in an important new cooperative way for Montreal in the 1970’s.

This is how in 1972, Mrs. May opened the Montreal United Workshop Association (MUWA2). Over the years fundraisers were held and slowly the workshop began to raise more and more awareness until they were finally fully funded by the Québec provincial government.

The MUWA was a non-profit organization which offered a sheltered workshop intended to increase normalization, social reintegration and employment. It offered opportunities in education, work training, job placement, and travel training. Two community benefits were listed in the MUWA pamphlet: “The Workshop recycles human potential offering a chance for development in a warm, supportive environment. Families are released from constant daily care.”

As Program Coordinator, Mrs. May worked very hard to re-integrate her clients back into society, pairing people together depending on their personality and strengths to help them find jobs so they could feel more autonomous. The fact that 26 of the 86 initial referrals received successful job placements was impressive.

In 1976, Mrs. May was awarded the Order of Canada for her work re-integrating people as productive members of society. On the right is a picture of her and her husband with Gov. Gen. & Mme. Jules Léger.

For your contribution to improving the quality of life and the level of autonomy of people with disabilities; And for your contribution to occupational therapy, thank you Elaine May!

Thank you to Jean-Pascal Beaudoin for your help and input in writing this article.

Dec 2011/ October 2012.

1 Keely has obtained verbal consent from her grandmother for this story to be told to all Canadian occupational therapists through the website.

2 The acronym MUWA is not from the 1970’s. It is used here to lighten the reading.