Yesterday I wrote about ending the abuses of sheltered workshops and received push-back from a reader and online-friend. Her son is finding his pathway into employment through a Goodwill sheltered workshop. I really appreciate her voice. I want to see change, but would hate for that change to limit options for her son or for anyone.
That said, the abuses and exploitation of people with disabilities in the sheltered workshop environment have got to stop. The challenge is to craft new systems that preserve possibilities for all people of all ability levels.
Beyond the laws, I argue that the emphasis on sheltered workshops pushes segregation over inclusion. Segregation is easier. Inclusion is hard. Inclusion takes creativity, more resources, and the willingness to push at a culture that too often wants to isolate people with disabilities or render them mere objects of inspiration, rather than full-blown members of society.
There’s no one pathway forward. The key is, as always, inclusion; not same-ness. For some people, a segregated controlled environment is absolutely essential for making progress in education or work or anything. My son is one of those people. In First Grade, he spends about half the day in a special needs room and half the day with his class. Although philosophically I am deeply committed to full inclusion, it’s not the right thing for Nico right now. He needs the social interaction of a full class, but he also needs the quiet, controlled environment in order to work on his math, spelling, reading, and writing.
And it’s working. Nico can read. The key to the Individualized Education Plan is that first word – individual. Frankly, all children of all abilities need IEPs, but we lack the resources. It’s not a perfect model, but the approach can carry forward into the working world.
I dream of a day in which all people with disabilities can take advantage of well-supported infrastructure to guide them in transition from high-school into adulthood.
Where whatever degree of independence, inclusion, protection, isolation, etc. that is best for them is available and economically feasible.
Where the word “shelter” in “sheltered workshop” is not a euphemism but a true description of a gentle, educative, environment that helps people with disabilities find meaningful work, build skills, and move out of the shelter if and when they can handle the turbulence of a more inclusive environment.
All of this will take government money, and lots of it.
It cannot be done by charities alone. It cannot be done by commerce (buying stuff at Goodwill, for example. Or a bake-sale). It cannot only be available for people with means and contacts (Nico is likely going to be fine assuming all goes well; he’s 7 and my wife and I are already making plans). In many cases, we will need to pay two salaries or stipends to do one job – a job coach + compensation for work.
The costs are high; but oh, the potential payoffs. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people currently cut off from the workforce, isolated in workshops, stuck at home watching TV, their hard-won skills deteriorating. They already impose costs on society, government, family, and themselves. Brought into a more inclusive working environment, some of those costs ease; more importantly, as with all inclusion, the whole society and culture benefits when we open the doors to difference.
So as I head into the world of work and disability, a topic on which I have much more to say, including revealing more about a pilot program that I helped start at my university – and which is scale-able to every university in the nation – this is my trajectory.
End the laws that allow for abuses while maintaining choices and possibilities that take into account the full range of human ability and potential.
Inclusion; not same-ness. Shelter as a choice; not a default.