Ending the Abuses of Sheltered Workshops

This summer I hope to write several longer essays about social justice topics: police and disability, rape culture (men need to talk to men about rape), eugenics and Down syndrome, and adult-life with developmental disability. I know, sounds more fun than a barrel full of very squished and depressed monkeys, am I right?

Here’s the first of many posts bringing out resources relevant to these essays.

Thanks to Section 14 of the Fair Labor Standards Act, people with disabilities can be paid below minimum wage, even down to pennies an hour, if they can’t work up to an adequate “standard.” Plenty of people with disabilities are exploited in the workplace, but this is legal exploitation, based on the sheltered workshop exception.

The National Council on Disability has a useful overview report on the practice.

In the last year, Goodwill has received some bad publicity for the practice (especially the high pressure testing they do to see how close to “normal” their workshop employees can work). It’s pretty grim and just didn’t hit at moments when I was ready to write about it. The stories are so painful though.

So it was with pleasure that I read about the Rhode Island reached an agreement with the Federal Government on ending this kind of work segregation. Here’s the ADA fact sheet (.docx), here’s the Providence Journal, and the NY Times.

Here’s the Journal:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. –- The state and the federal government have reached a groundbreaking settlement that will move disabled Rhode Islanders from segregated settings that isolated them for decades into the work force and the community at large.
The Department of Justice announced the consent agreement and the 10-year plan that arises from it at a news conference this morning at the U.S. Attorney’s office. The plan borrows from other states, but, for the first time, lays the pieces out in a comprehensive manner, officials said.
“Today’s agreement will make Rhode Island a national leader in the movement to bring people with disabilities out of segregated work settings and into typical jobs in the community at a competitive pay,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels for the Civil Rights Division.
The plan aims to gradually move the intellectually and developmentally disabled from meaningless tasks — unwrapping bars of soap and capping lotion bottles for $2.21 an hour — to jobs matched with their interests and abilities, even for the profoundly disabled.

It’s not just the pay, though in many cases the pay really matters and is an issue. But the extent to which pay ALWAYS = valued / meaningful is debateable (later this summer I will write a Chronicle piece on a program that does not include minimum wage and another, I hope, on the ABLE act for another site). The real question for me is about whether the work is meaningful, developmental, builds skills, and so forth.

So I like that last line, I like the direction this is going, and I hope RI is a model for other states to follow.

Update: Karen, a reader with a son happily moving through a sheltered workshop system, has raised a powerful dissent (which I really appreciate) below, so here’s a qualification.

I am NOT calling for sheltered workshops to be closed unilaterally and neither is Rhode Island. What I want to end is the easy slide into segregation over inclusion. Segregation is always easier – in schools, communities, and workplaces. Inclusion takes resources, creativity, and investment from many different parties. 

Moreover, some Goodwill stores have done a very good job paying fair wages, supporting growth, and building community. Others put their workers through punishing tests and chop wages when they don’t succeed (the NBC report is worth watching, I think).

There will be a place for sheltered workshops in the constellation of pathways for people with disabilities to find employment.There are people with disabilities for whom the sheltered workshop is the best option, much as there are children who can learn best in a segregated environment. 

Overall, though, I will continue to push for inclusion, but not same-ness, to the extent appropriate for each individual. 

Thanks for commenting. 

9 Replies to “Ending the Abuses of Sheltered Workshops”

  1. Mardra Sikora says:

    I'm glad, in a conflicted way, this subject has made the media's radar. You're a step ahead of me, because I'm not ready to write my own blog yet (so I'll try not to write one in the comments.)
    Short version: In my opinion, eliminating *all* sheltered workshops is not an appropriate course. However, change is. I love what RI is doing to put the focus back where it should be: Options and Transition. More to come. 🙂

    1. David Perry says:

      I agree. Workshops can be part of the constellation of options that vary as much as humans do. But certain kinds of wage exploitation do need to stop, and I agree that RI seems like it's on the right path.

      Make sure you tag me when you blog about this, please!

    2. Mardra Sikora says:

      Thanks David, I will be in touch. I hope we as a community can make enough "noise" about this subject that our voices will be heard (even if we're not always in agreement) over the voices of legislatures and others who, however well-meaning, do not understand the complexity of this issue. 🙂

  2. Karen Gregoire says:

    We are living this at this very moment with Josh and, although I can understand why some people believe sheltered workshops should be closed, I have real concerns about how they, us, we will make this happen. The stats on people with ID/DD who are currently completely unemployed is staggering. You close sheltered workshops and how many more will become unemployed? Josh currently works at a sheltered workshop and LOVES his job. He loves his paycheck, which may be shocking to you and I but, to him, it's FABULOUS. He loves his co-workers, who he calls his friends. He loves his supervisor and his job coaches! He has just the "right amount" of support. He is shown how to do a job and then left alone to do it. He works hard and comes home tired and very happy. His sheltered workshop experience will come to an end in September when he will start a new adventure working with an enclave. I view these two experiences for Josh as just "stepping stones" or "building of a resume" until he has the skills needed to take the next step. His work at Goodwill Industries is very much valuable and does, in fact, absolutely teach him skills needed to join a workforce in the general public. I will be watching the subject, your writings, and the progress in this area very closely.

  3. martilindsey says:

    One of the huge limiting factors to employment is that benefits can be withdrawn if the individual makes over a certain amount of money or has assets (car, bank account, house etc) over $2000! This is insane and one of the reasons that sheltered workshops pay so low. Another example of why it is critical that the ABLE act be passed in congress! Once the able act is passed, then we can actually begin a real conversation about employment.

    1. David Perry says:

      I'm on that ABLE act beat and let's hope soon. Reid and McConnell have both endorsed, Boehner says he'll give a vote once the CBO scores and it gets out of Camp's committee.

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