An Update on Affirmative Businesses or Social Firms for People With Mental Illness

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Social firms, or “affirmative businesses” as they are known in North America, are businesses created to employ people with disabilities and to provide a needed product or service. This Open Forum offers an overview of the development and status of social firms. The model was developed in Italy in the 1970s for people with psychiatric disabilities and has gained prominence in Europe. Principles include that over a third of employees are people with a disability or labor market disadvantage, every worker is paid a fair-market wage, and the business operates without subsidy. Independent of European influence, affirmative businesses also have developed in Canada, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere. The success of individual social firms is enhanced by locating the right market niche, selecting labor-intensive products, having a public orientation for the business, and having links with treatment services. The growth of the social firm movement is aided by legislation that supports the businesses, policies that favor employment of people with disabilities, and support entities that facilitate technology transfer. Social firms can empower individual employees, foster a sense of community in the workplace, and enhance worker commitment through the organization's social mission.

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