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Are Sheltered Workshops A Thing of the Past

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.

01 sheltered workshop 82014 0202fOften, 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

Written by Melissa theSeed

Melissa is a mother, wife, advocate & blogger who was born and raised on Long Island, New York. She has two children, a 16-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy and a 3-year-old son with Bruton’s which is an autoimmunodeficiency. She believes it is her mission to change how too many people with disabilities are viewed as charity cases or inspirational trinkets. She recently co-founded a nonprofit, Forward RISE, which advocates for the inclusion and equality for people with disabilities.

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Not sure how other states function, but here we have supported employment which helps higher functioning adults build their skills, interview, obtain, and maintain employment. This program is typically wrapped up with agencies who provide sheltered programs but is provided in the community.
I do believe pay should be appropriate for what is being done. I think a lot of people are not aware of how much these programs cost, especially when staffing ratios are so high (1:4). Its only going to drive up the cost of such programs if we pay minimum wage ($7.50/hr) and let’s say the employee really only works 20 minutes and is requiring program/support services for the remainder of the hour. County budgets are be cut and it would be terrible if people could not attend these programs due to cost, and it would certainly drive away folks who private pay.

I interned at a sheltered workshop in college. Even though hard workers can earn more on a piece rate, piece rates are still low I’m comparison to what we ask average workers to do for minimum wage. I agree with most of your point, I know many adults who would not be able to enter the workforce if not for a sheltered workshop. However, there are many high functioning disabled adults who could work in regular employment but are forced to settle for workshop employment that doesn’t let them realize their full potential and independence. There has to be some kind of legislation to help these adults so that workshops aren’t the “default” place for disabled adults to work, if in fact they are high functioning and could integrate themselves in mainstream employment.a

There are so many disabled adults who rely upon sheltered workplaces. Some may want a mainstream job but some of them will fail even if given all sorts of assistance and accommodations in the community. If we end sheltered workplaces, where would they have to fall back on? There are many adults that I’ve worked with who are able to complete the simple tasks in these settings, but absolutely do not possess the ability to obtain or retain community employment. Here in MN our sheltered worksites pay by the piece when able, which allows hard workers to earn much more money than they would by earning minimum wage.