Much like institutionalization of people with disabilities, sheltered workshops started with someone’s heart being in the right place. Starting around the middle of the 20th century, sheltered workshops began as an intervention for adults with disabilities in which they were given jobs to help keep them busy. These places offer limited-skill work such as sorting, assembling and packaging to people with disabilities.
Often, the jobs are repetitive-motion tasks, do not offer much in the way of self-fulfillment, and give the employees zero opportunity to advance their position in the company. More often than not, workers make somewhere between $2 – $3 per hour which is less than half of the federal minimum wage that so many non-disabled workers are fighting to increase.
There is a great debate taking place on whether or not sheltered workshops should still be an option for people with disabilities who age out of school usually at the age of 21. One of the main arguments people have against closing down workshops is the fear that these individuals will have no place to go since businesses tend to not hire people with disabilities.
According to the Department of Labor as of August 2014, the numbers appear to support this argument because unemployment rates for people with disabilities are twice as high than people without disabilities. You can find more information on that here: http://www.dol.gov/odep/
According to an article in the Disability Scoop, Vermont has found a way to improve outcomes for the disabled after closing its sheltered workshops which states,
The sheltered workshops that are still prevalent across much of the country were shut down in Vermont more than a decade ago. And now, the employment rate of people with developmental disabilities in the New England state is twice the national average. Read Full Article
How did Vermont do it?
The University of Vermont received a grant to build programs for integrated employment in the 1980’s. They worked with state disability agencies and its success over time was enough for Vermont to realize that sheltered workshops were not how the state wanted their citizens with disabilities to be treated. Workshops were phased out over a 4-year period: new entries into workshops were no longer allowed and their funding was incrementally cut.
Of course, there were fears from the families who would be directly affected by this and rightly so. As parents, we want our children to be safe and secure, accepted by peers and part of something bigger than themselves. Could these desires be realized if workers with disabilities don’t have contact with others who are also disabled? Is there a job out there they could actually do and feel good about doing? Would society in general accept them?
It turns out, the answer is yes! In Vermont, about 80% of the people who used to be in workshops found employment in an integrated setting. The rest found other community-based services. According to the Disability Scoop article, “In fiscal year 2013, the average wage for supported employees was $9.26, more than 50 cents above the state’s minimum wage and $2 above the federal minimum wage.” How incredible is that while Vermont shows no signs of slowing its success.
It has increased its numbers of employed disabled individuals yearly. To continue their success rate, ongoing support is available in each county and doesn’t fade over time, which is common in most other states. There are also education programs with businesses that ease fears and answers questions for potential employers.
Looking to the future
Some argue the reason Vermont was able to be so successful is because it’s a small state, but isn’t that a cop out? Amazingly, Vermont was able to develop their employment program without involving the legislative process, but not every state is willing to do the work to put this program in place even though Vermont offers a living model of how and why it should be done.
In order to make sheltered workshops a thing of the past or at least a last resort, there is new legislation under consideration in both Houses of Congress that would alter their pathway into the workforce. Under Section 511 of the Workforce Investment Act, people under 24 years of age could not be employed by workshops unless they have sought employment in other settings first. This legislation also requires that state vocational rehabilitation agencies provide “pre-employment services” to students at schools in their area.
As a parent to a teenager whose disability severely impacts her, I worry about her future all the time. What will she do when she ages out of school? Today, I can’t picture a job where she can be independent because of the extremity of her physical disability but who knows where we’ll be in terms of technology and employability six years from now? My greatest hope is that all states work towards achieving the successful model Vermont has realized so that our community has as many options as it can.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Kansas City Star
Colin Kaepernick and How Self Care Must Go Pro
For years, permanently injured players have been left to figure out how they will financially support their families and how they will carry on with their lives after committing years to football. Currently, the NFL is settling numerous lawsuits from former players who claim that their disabilities resulted from injuries on the field. But that’s not the only controversy stirring in the NFL.
In Fall of 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem. At the time, many believed the media would quickly move on to another more trendy story. Afterall, he wasn’t chanting or picketing. He was simply kneeling. But as weeks passed, white anger slowly unveiled itself, and patriotism took the main stage. Critics saw Kaepernick’s quiet gesture as a radical protest. Yet, he still knelt game after game.
Kaepernick proved his physical ability early in his professional career by leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013. At that time the public didn’t know that Kaepernick had a metal rod placed in his left leg prior to his rookie year. Still, he attended and did well in practices. But in 2015, he injured his left shoulder and would later report injuries to his thumb and knee.
Working with such disabilities would prove challenging to most people, particularly for professional athletes who are required to demonstrate physical grit day after day. When Kaepernick’s scoring record took a hit, questions arose as to whether he was worth his contract. But Kaepernick saw himself as more than just damaged goods. He had something else to offer: a perspective on the value of black lives in America.
By kneeling, Kaepernick demonstrated ownership of his body, a black body that has been endangered for a time that is too long to measure. That is a radical act of self-care. The concept of self-care, for a long time, was viewed as a luxury accessible to an elite few. And, self-care is publicly declaring that your life matters beyond what your performance on the football field.
In a recent interview, Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy said he thinks that Kaepernick was released because he’s not a great player, not because he didn’t stand for the anthem. He added that from the perspective of a team owner, Kaepernick isn’t worth the distraction if he can’t play well. However, star quarterbacks Aaron Rogers and Cam Newton came out in support of Kaepernick. Both stated he should be starting in the NFL, but he isn’t due to his protest of the national anthem.
I’d argue that even when athletes play well, there is a general discomfort with them expressing resistance to racism. They usually are told to stick to the game, proving once again that a working, non-resistant black body is most favorable (and profitable) in this society.
The NFL has a longstanding history of utilizing bodies for financial gain, in particular, black bodies. It is a marketplace for bodies. Bodies that can be negotiated and sold and traded in the name of increasing revenue. I hear sports fans say often that certain teams don’t win because the owners ‘don’t want to spend the money’. However, Kaepernick was recently released from his contract, something for which he seemed prepared.
According to the New York Times, NFL players are becoming permanently disabled after suffering head traumas. Those injuries have caused concussions, dementia, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Now, some players’ wives have created at least one space, in the form of a private Facebook group, where they share their experiences and gain strength from each other as they become caregivers and advocates for men who once were larger than life. I believe that this generation of athletes will begin to demand more than money for play. They will demand the right to safety and self-care, and they will begin to plan for their legacies and quality of life off the field.
Athletes are human and imperfect. For many, they are heroes which must be a compliment, but it must also be a lot of pressure. This next generation of athletes will need to employ a high degree of self-care if they want to have a productive career and higher quality life after retirement.
Athletes inspire us because of their consistency and their unmatched desire to win. I’ve never met an athlete who thought second place was good enough. They want to be the best. Their drive is a metaphor for how many of us want to live our best lives.
Hurricane Irma: Two Things Helping Professionals Need to Know About People with Disabilities
The state of Florida has called for 17,000 volunteers to help out with the post-Irma recovery process, but there’s one population that are often forgotten in the crush of storm evacuation and disaster recovery efforts, and that is people with disabilities.
Recently, at a social work conference, I was told “disability is not a social work issue,” which is a shocking statement, given that over one-fifth of the United States’ population has a disability according to the Centers for Disease Control. All too often, people with disabilities are left feeling invisible in our society – and as helping professionals, we need to right this wrong. In order to begin to do this work, especially given the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey on our country, here are two things helping professionals need to know about people with disabilities.
Storms such as Irma and Harvey are very likely to have a disproportionate impact on people with disabilities – see Professor Rabia Belt’s commentary on this topic. During Hurricane Katrina and surely many others, it came to light that many people with disabilities were unable to evacuate due to mobility limitations, equipment needs, staffing needs, requirements for service animals or just having a low income.
We know that people with disabilities are much more likely to live in poverty in this country, and this can really take a toll during storm evacuations and disaster recovery. In fact, during Katrina, 155,000 people with disabilities aged 5 and up lived in the cities hardest hit by the storm – and unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of Katrina’s fatalities involved this population. Helping professionals need to see people with disabilities – and seek them out prior to, during and after a storm.
Given these realities, it is important to design disaster preparedness and recovery efforts so that they are accessible to all – including people with disabilities in keeping with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the disability community, stories about people with mobility limitations, nursing needs, and service animals being refused shelter or assistance are making the rounds. We must do better.
The National Council on Disability wrote an extensive report on the topic of disaster preparedness, and it provides great guidance for disaster planning and recovery efforts – be prepared! There is also specialized guidance on how to create accessible programs and spaces for people with disabilities during and after a devastating storm in a way that promotes self-determination.
People with disabilities do not want to be victims, and helping professionals should support their self-determination during evacuations, sheltering and recovery. Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, an organization based in the southern United States, is the go-to source for assistance with people with disabilities during these storms. Please use their hotline for assistance with your clients with disabilities 1-800-626-4959.
Their motto is drawn from the disability civil rights movement, “nothing about us without us.” As you gear up to provide help before, during and after these storms, keep this motto in mind and let it guide your practice. We can do better for people with disabilities, and we will.
A Teacher’s Response to Charlottesville for Social Workers in Practice with People with Disabilities
I am currently teaching a course on social work practice with people with disabilities. The course uses an intersectional lens, acknowledging the fact that people have many intersecting social identities that can result in varying types of privilege and oppression. As such, I had to provide some venue for my students to address the Charlottesville violence and hate speech. The following is a discussion prompt I provided for them to respond to, and I thought other social work educators might be interested in seeing this so that they could use it and/or modify it for their own courses. Feedback welcome!
Discussion prompt: As we are part of a course on social work practice with people with disabilities in the United States of America, I would be remiss not to address the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. As you have already likely gathered, there are important links between the White nationalist/Nazi actions in Virginia, and the work we do as social workers with people with disabilities – who often have intersecting marginalized social identities.
Many of the perspectives held by members of White nationalist/Nazi groups are clearly identifiable as racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and even Eugenic in nature. Therefore, as social workers practicing under our particular Code of Ethics, we need to respond. If you need some quick resources to learn more about the dynamics that led to the Charlottesville rally and violence, you can check out the “Charlottesville Syllabus” at this link.
As disability-aware social workers training to view the world through an intersectional lens, we need to acknowledge and act on what has happened in Charlottesville. That means that we need to engage in discussions – often difficult in nature – with our families, our co-workers and with our clients. Let’s start with our work with clients.
One prominent disability civil rights activist, Rebecca Cokley, has noted that when terrorist incidents like this occur, people with disability count the minutes until ableist claims about the ‘crazy’ person who engaged in terrorist acts roll in. That may be an important place for you to start a conversation with a client with a disability in a week like this one. In this essay, Ms. Cokley points out another important link between disability and trauma. She calls for the disability community (and disability service providers) to reach out to those whose disabilities came about as a result of trauma, such as the people who were injured and impaired by the car driven by the White nationalist/Nazi from Ohio. Her essay is short, easy to read and compelling and you can find it here.
It is also important to remember, however, that our work is not just direct care work. Remember, the NASW Code of Ethics states that we must fight for social justice, as it is a core value in our profession. We need to do more than discuss these difficult topics amongst ourselves, we also need to take a stand on them. I am fond of the idea that if we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
It is important to move beyond ideas of ourselves as “good” people and work towards actively addressing the webs of oppression that exist in our world, little bit by little bit. Here is an example about how ADAPT, the national disability civil rights organization, has taken a stance on the events in Charlottesville. Where might you be able to stake your claim to your own stance? Check out these ideas for 10 ways to fight hate from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Finally, I want to leave you with a challenging set of questions. Although there are many facets to the NASW Code of Ethics, let us remember that the mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values, including the idea that there is dignity and worth in every person. How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color? What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?” Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?
How would you respond to a client with a disability who actively identified as a White nationalist/Nazi if you were to be assigned such a client today? What if she didn’t want to work with you because you were a woman of color? What if she had been arrested for street fighting during the “Unite the Right” rally and was open about her wish to “hurt Leftists?” Based on your training thus far in this social work program, how would you approach your work with this client?
Please leave your comments about this discussion prompt and how it might be improved or expanded upon. All feedback is welcome.
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