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Getting People With Disabilities Out of Sheltered Workshops and Into the Community

In Oregon, disabled workers have recently filed suit against officials who support sheltered workshops, arguing that they are Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) violations and officials have an obligation to promote supported employment over sheltered workshops. For those not familiar with the intersections between labour and disability, the case is a fascinating glimpse of a complex system and the history behind it; a system that enforces poverty for people with disabilities, limits independence and autonomy, and provides a large pool of low-cost and sometimes free labour.

Labour rights are a critical social justice issue, and issues specific to the disability community are often ignored, perhaps under the mistaken belief that people with disabilities can’t work, don’t want to work, or won’t work. The unemployment rate is extremely high among people with disabilities, and attitudes about disability and work leave many employees extremely vulnerable to exploitation. It’s critical to integrate discussions about disability into larger conversations on the subject of labour, and to include people with disabilities in these discussions.

The turn towards sheltered workshops began in the wake of the First World War; prior to that, many people with disabilities were provided with training in useful trades, with the goal of allowing them to support themselves independently. Such programmes were funded and supported by governments as well as community organisations, providing opportunities for people with disabilities and placing a strong emphasis on independence and self-supporting work.

With a wave of disabled veterans, society began to turn towards the sheltered workshop, an environment where people with disabilities complete simple, repetitive tasks for low pay. Supporters of such programmes claimed they provided people with useful job training, but this hasn’t been borne out by looking at success rates for transition from sheltered workshops to the general workforce. Instead, these are effectively dead-end jobs which trap people in an environment where they don’t acquire skills they can apply to jobs outside the sheltered workshop. It is a form of segregation for people with disabilities, who have little chance of seeking employment elsewhere.

Employees in sheltered workshops also earn less than minimum wage:

Under current law, the Department of Labor authorizes select employers to pay less than the minimum wage to workers with disabilities if the employee is determined to be less productive as a result of their disability. In such cases, individuals are paid a percentage of the hourly wage a typical employee would earn for performing the job. (source)

There’s limited oversight here in terms of making sure people still earn a reasonable amount of money, which leaves the system ripe for abuse. Employers running sheltered workshops are well aware that they can get away with steeply undercutting minimum wage, paying much less than they would have to for nondisabled employees, based on an arbitrary standard of how much work a disabled employee can perform.

Sometimes far, far less, as in, less than a dollar an hour. Not only are workers trapped in positions with limited opportunity for advancement, but they’re also forced into poverty. This is a very different narrative than the one presented by supporters of sheltered workshops, who seem to think they provide workers with ‘independence’ and ‘self-confidence.’

Furthermore, such environments are also ripe for abuse. A particularly vile case was uncovered in 2010, when intellectually disabled workers at a meatpacking plant were discovered living in dangerous ’employee housing,’ working excessively long hours and earning approximately $0.41 an hour courtesy of the contracting agency that oversaw their employment. Many disabled workers in such environments are not aware of their rights, aren’t sure about how to report abuses, or may not understand how to identify and discuss abuse. Employers can keep disabled workers in a state of fear, ensuring that unsafe, dangerous, and hostile conditions are allowed to persist for years. Not all sheltered workshops are like this, of course, but the system is structured in a way that makes it easy for them to become so.

A recent study and policy analysis from the National Disability Rights Network (.pdf) illustrates that sheltered workshops are effectively akin to institutions, because they isolate disabled people from society. This makes them a violation of numerous federal laws designed to promote full integration of people with disabilities into their communities; when possible, people with disabilities are supposed to live in their communities, receiving appropriate support services to help them stay there.

Considering these stark realities, it is clear that segregated and sheltered work no longer provides workers with disabilities an opportunity for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They may no longer be warehoused in institutions without meaningful daily interactions, but the change may merely be logistical. Segregation—whether it be in an institution or at work—is still segregation.

The Oregon suit demands that more emphasis be placed on community-supported employment, where people with disabilities are members of the regular workforce, with job coaches to provide support. Such positions provide people with more income as well as more opportunities; they can acquire job skills and apply for promotions. They can pursue careers, rather than being trapped in a sheltered environment where they are isolated and have limited chances for developing more independence and skills.

Incidentally, community-supported employment is also significantly less expensive to administer; approximately one third the cost of running a sheltered workshop, by some estimates. For those arguing that people with disabilities are ‘a drain on society,’ it’s striking that so many oppose community-supported employment and community-based living, because they are substantially less costly than isolation and institution. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s also the economically sound thing to do.

Community-based living and employment also, critically, promote integration into society. People working in sheltered workshops have limited opportunities for interaction with nondisabled members of the public, which creates a sense of isolation and further segregation. By bringing people with disabilities out into the community, community-supported employment can promote more interaction between people with disabilities and nondisabled people.

Breaking down ableism and social attitudes about people with disabilities requires actual interaction with disabled persons. Not just reading about them or attending ‘diversity workshops’ or interacting with them in a limited sense at events specifically designed for the purpose. It requires seeing people with disabilities as members of the workforce, interacting with them in environments like retail stores, or in line at the grocery store, or in any number of locations.

This is why disability rights activists have fought so hard for a focus on community-based care for people with disabilities, rather than isolation in institutions and other facilities with limited opportunities for social interaction.

If you want to take action on sheltered workshops and support community-based care and community-supported employment in your area, talk to your elected representatives. Find out about their stances on these issues, and ask them to advocate for better community support services. You might also want to do some reading on the Community Choice Act; ADAPT kindly provides readings and talking points on the subject.


  1. NoraReed wrote:

    Augh, it’s like Clockwork Fagin only not real, and without Monty 🙁

    Are there any companies that are actually good at this kind of thing? Is Goodwill’s work actually, you know, good? And are the companies doing this kind of shit easily identifiable so I can, um, not buy their products? I really don’t want to support this.

    Friday, February 3, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Permalink
  2. I can not stop thinking about this article. My sister-in-law works for an archeology firm that partners with the military to train veterans who are disabled and/or have PTSD to make computer databases of the artifacts. It teaches computer skills and civilian professional behavior, and it only lasts a year (or six months), after which the vets work with someone to find employment elsewhere. My mentally retarded uncle-in-law was assisted in finding a janitorial job with a city office that he loves.

    And now to read about abuses in sheltered workshops is pretty upsetting. What is this, a Dickens novel? COME ON, America. I certainly will be politely haranguing my representatives about this, which I wouldn’t have known to do without this article. Thanks, s.e. smith!

    Sunday, February 5, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Kathleen wrote:

    In my community, the closing of sheltered workshops has been entirely cost-driven and has been substituted with … nothing. Nothing at all. The alternative has been that adults with developmental disabilities who formerly had, minimally, an organized collective activity filling some number of hours per week now have more hours to sit in group homes watching television. IF the choice is “sheltered workshop” vs. “supportive community employment”, the latter is always better — but it’s not inexpensive; it requires the efforts of many vocational counsellors to match people to positions, make sure the match works out, and the hardest part is raising awareness/willingness among employers to participate in programs with not just goodwill, but paychecks. It’s not accomplished with a wave of a wand. As a consequence, in many communities, the actual choice is “sheltered workshop” vs. “nothing”, and state and local governments opt for “nothing” because, hey, it’s not just cheap == it’s free! I don’t think opening a discussion that does not speak to that reality is being an ally to people with developmental disabilities.

    Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  4. Ali wrote:

    I worked for a sheltered workshop. Because my developmental disability isn’t comorbid with an intellectual disability, I was working as “staff” rather than as a “resident.” The organization was benevolent in its intentions: group homes and supported living for people with developmental disabilties, transport to and from school (through 21 for those who qualified for extended high school) and work, and work in supported placements with a job coach or in the sheltered workshop.

    It sounds very kind and nice, and I’m sure that was why so many families placed their children, their brothers and sisters there. And the organization WAS nice–it was a controlling, paternal sort of nice, but I never saw any outright abuse as I had in previous places. The problem was that if you had an intellectual disability OR didn’t talk OR had movement difficulties, you were basically relegated to the workshop. Only the least obviously disabled residents were allowed to work elsewhere–the people who needed only daily or weekly check-ins in their supported living, not full time staff, basically. About half of the adults served by the company went to the sheltered workshop every day.

    It was a dead-end job. Real wages varied between the absurd $0.04 an hour to type (by a man without ID but with severe CP that made typing extremely difficult) to $4 an hour to water plants in the garden. No one was encouraged to consider other work or taught how to do so. Further, because they were collectively deemed unfit to really work, paid hours in the workshop ammounted to 1-2 hours a day on average. The other 4-5 hours were spent snacking, colouring, going on trips to the library, and doing “volunteer” work sorting at a local recycled crafts warehouse. We had to time each person and note how often they needed encouragements to complete tasks, which was then used to determine how much money they’d get. Surprisingly, if you take a group of adults who have been told their whole lives they are stupid and worthless and who have been trained to only do ANYTHING when told to and never take initiative, they work at a slower pace and with more prompts than most people need.

    I had to leave after 3 months. It crushed me to see people I considered my peers treated like this–with this benevolent oppression and disregard. I still worry about them.

    Friday, February 10, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Francisco wrote:

    @Kathleen: Did you miss the part where it’s cheaper to not work in sheltered workshops? Because the article mentioned that. If the government can afford sheltered workshops, they can afford the other stuff (whether or not the people in your community chose to pay for it).

    There are more choices than Segregation or Death.

    Saturday, February 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink