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At a minimum, tens of thousands of Americans with disabilities are stuck spending their days in “sheltered workshops.” Sometimes called “work activity centers,” they work under regulations that are barely known outside of the disability community. These regulations allow the workers to be paid sub-minimum wages based on their productivity. The outcomes for people with disabilities are shameful.
What no doubt started with good intentions, these programs are now meaningless and outdated. The concept might have made sense when it was generally accepted that people with disabilities should be segregated and excluded from society. Under this context, the workshops provided a safe place where large number of people with disabilities performed primarily simple and unskilled tasks such as packaging and assembly. But, even in those early days, they were designed as a stepping stone to meaningful work in the community. Work skills were going to be taught and people would move on.
But, along the way, something went horribly wrong. The “sub minimum wage” standards allowed individuals to receive weekly paychecks as low as $.26. That’s right: $.26. State and federal reimbursement levels made it harder and harder to have the staff available to provide meaningful teaching, career planning and job placements. People became stuck in segregated workshops for the rest of their lives.
There is another part to this tragedy. Some organizations benefit by using these rules to pay sub-minimum wages to people with disabilities. These profits have provided economic security and in some cases, significant profits.
Hopefully, the tide might have begun to turn. A class action law suit was filed in January, in Oregon, claiming that federal law has been violated by not providing several thousand people with access to integrated employment or programs that will lead to jobs. This lawsuit got a boost when last month, the United States Justice Department asked to become a plaintiff as well.
Remarkably, there is opposition, even in the disability community, and it is misguided. Some say that people with disabilities should be able to choose to be in a segregated environment. One cannot choose when they have never been offered the opportunity to be successful in another environment. That is not a choice.
There are some that say that it can’t be done. We know this is not true and can point to hundreds of workshops that have closed. Some just let their certificate to pay sub-minimum wages expire and were thus forced to end the segregation of people with disabilities in workshops and others had a conversion plan. Some providers will say that they are engaged in employment programs and that the workshop is a necessity.
While this case winds its way through the legal system and to eventual success, I offer a way to accelerate the path way to inclusion:
Imagine how impactful the philanthropic community could be if their resources were used towards the conversion or elimination of workshops! Imagine the effects if private philanthropy, already funding disability projects, used their resources to further progressive social policy. What if these resources were used to support nonprofits that did not operate sheltered workshops and those that did were obligated to use the financial support towards conversion activities with firm commitments for closure?
It wouldn’t have to take a federal lawsuit.
Jo Ann Simons is a Disability Advisor to the Ruderman Family Foundation and President and CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers
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