Advocates Call for Integration of People with Disabilities

By Roy Maurer Sep 29, 2011

A roundtable of disability advocates made their case to a U.S. Senate committee that policy should be written to help people with “the most significant” intellectual and developmental disabilities transition toward regular workplaces rather than keeping them in so-called “sheltered workshops.”

During a Sept. 15, 2011, hearing of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, listened to several witnesses describe their experiences with integrated employment as well as the sheltered workshop experience. Harkin expressed a desire to create policy that moves away from the workshop model, saying that “sheltered workshops were cutting-edge at one time, but not anymore.”

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) defines “sheltered workshops” as facilities that employ people with disabilities exclusively or primarily and that are authorized to employ workers with disabilities at subminimum wages.

“In the past, the default position for people with intellectual disabilities has been sheltered employment. I want to change that default to integrated, supported employment,” Harkin said at the hearing, which is one in a series he is conducting during 2011 to address disability employment issues.

Harkin made it clear that he did not support elimination of sheltered workshops but that they and other disability employment policies are not serving those with the most significant disabilities.

Harkin cited estimates for labor force participation of people with significant disabilities—defined by the committee as “people for whom competitive employment has not traditionally occurred, has been interrupted or is intermittent because of their disability, or who need intensive support services in order to work competitively”—at below 25 percent and below 10 percent for people with severe and persistent mental illness.

Sheltered Workshops Under Fire

As of September 2011, DOL 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.

Critics of the sheltered workshop model charge that such segregated environments are akin to institutions that “warehouse” people, limit their opportunities and put them in danger of abuse and neglect, all while providing financial gain for employers.

“In the best of situations, sheltered environments, segregated work and the subminimum wage do not truly provide a meaningful experience for workers with disabilities,” said Curtis L. Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), a nonprofit advocacy organization. “Workshop tasks are often menial and repetitive, the environments can be isolating, and the pay is often well below the federal minimum wage. In the worst situations, the segregated and sheltered nature of the lives of workers with disabilities leaves them vulnerable to severe abuse and neglect,” he said in a report published by NDRN in January 2011.

The report laid out five fundamental arguments against sheltered employment:

The sheltered workshop model contradicts national policy directly. The Americans with Disabilities Act provides broad protection in employment, transportation, public accommodations, telecommunications and public services for people with disabilities, making it clear that people with disabilities should live and work in their communities, the NDRN asserted. “Segregated and sheltered work keeps people with disabilities marginalized and hidden in the shadows, and these environments create opportunities for abuse and neglect to occur,” Decker said.

Work segregation of people with disabilities is damaging. Segregation facilitates feelings of isolation for many people and impinges on the natural desire to connect with others, the NDRN found. “Sheltered workshops have replaced institutions in many states as the new warehousing system and are the new favored locations where people with disabilities are sent to occupy their days,” Decker said.

People with disabilities deserve the right to live and work independently in their chosen communities, he added.

“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” said Julie Petty, a leader in the self-advocacy movement and past president of Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, a nonprofit advocacy organization working toward full inclusion of people with developmental disabilities.

“With integrated employment, we can develop relationships with nondisabled people,” Petty told the committee. “When we are able to contribute to society, we’re able to be treated with dignity and respect. Americans with disabilities deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” she said.

“One of the problems of heavily investing in segregating people with disabilities is that it takes away choices for those people,” said Ruby Moore, executive director, Georgia Advocacy Office.

Moore testified that much has been learned about workplace flexibility and assistive technology in recent years that could be applied to enhancing the working lives of people with significant disabilities. “We’ve learned a lot about customizing and negotiating between what potential employees with significant disabilities need and employers who have unmet needs, even in this economy,” she said.

Subminimum wage reinforces a life of poverty for people with disabilities. Labor law exemptions for employers of people with disabilities have created jobs that pay as little as 10 percent of the minimum wage, with most workers earning only 50 percent, the NDRN reported. Moreover, few sheltered workshop workers receive health or other employment benefits typical for American workers, NDRN found.

“The wage issue alone is a problem in that it limits independence,” said Nadine Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting LLC and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Diversity Special Expertise Panel. “It also sets the bar very low in terms of expectations, which just reinforces the assumptions society makes about people with disabilities and their inability to be productive workers and contributors to society at large,” Vogel told SHRM Online.

Sheltered workshop jobs typically lead nowhere. Supporters of the workshop model often defend sheltered workshops as a transitional step to prepare people to enter the competitive workforce. However, the NDRN stated that “studies have consistently shown that segregated environments do not prepare people to live, work or participate in integrated environments. A mere 3.5 percent of people in sheltered workshops move into competitive employment in a given year.” Critics claim that sheltered workers are often taught skills that are not relevant or transferable to traditional work environments.

“In my view, sheltered employment does not enhance the options for people with disabilities but instead constricts their options,” said Fred Schroeder, former commissioner for the Rehabilitation Services Administration. “As long as there are places ‘over there’ for ‘those people,’ people with disabilities will continue to suffer misunderstanding, which leads to diminished opportunities for integrated employment,” he said.

Schroeder argued that society will continue to regard those with disabilities as “broken people,” because employment in a sheltered facility will consign the person with a disability as someone who is below the productivity standard of mainstream employment. Even if disabled individuals spent years working their way up through the jobs offered at the facility, they would be doing a job that, even at its highest level, “is still a low-paying, low capability job,” he noted.

Sheltered workshops can profit greatly from the status quo. While it is argued that the cost to provide work for people with disabilities is higher than at similar worksites with a labor force consisting largely of people without disabilities, critics contend that the facts do not support this claim. “Not only are their profit margins protected by statutes allowing them to pay workers far below the minimum wage, they also receive sizeable subsidies from the local, state and federal governments equaling as much as 46 percent of their annual revenue,” the NDRN said. “Since sheltered workshops don’t have to compete in the open market to earn income, they also don’t have to do the things other businesses must do like innovate, adapt and evolve. Sheltered workshops today are not very different than they were when they were started more than 170 years ago, and that is the problem,” said Decker.

‘Supported Employment’ an Alternative?

“The ‘person centered’ approach is true integrated employment,” Vogel said. The employee and employer share a direct relationship with the sheltered employment model but also with “supported employment,” where those with disabilities receive help finding a job as well as training, accommodations and other workplace supports such as a job coach.

“While [supported employment] is certainly more of an integrated model than sheltered employment and one that takes individual strengths and goals into account, it still does not reflect a true, ‘person centered’ approach, which assumes more of a direct relationship between the employee and employer and a competitive wage and is truly based on the individual’s interests and talents combined with the employer’s needs,” Vogel said.

The “person centered” approach is a form of employment that benefits the individual as much as it does the company, Vogel said, noting that:

  • People with disabilities are more likely to stay with an employer than their nondisabled counterparts.
  • People with disabilities meet or exceed job performance and productivity expectations consistently.
  • Absentee and turnover rates are lower for people with disabilities and for older workers compared with nondisabled employees.
  • People with disabilities have a well-deserved reputation for innovation. “Accustomed to adapting to a variety of situations, they are often quick to troubleshoot, formulate new ideas and adopt cutting-edge solutions,” she said.
  • “At the end of the day, people with disabilities have a right to fair and equal wages, career opportunities and social benefits of employment,” Vogel said. “Sheltered employment does not allow for this. For employers who want to dip their toe in the water of employing people with disabilities, they might want to consider initiatives such as disability mentor days, where there is a day-long job shadowing experience between managers and individuals with disabilities.”

    Vogel added that initially mentor days often lead to internships or summer or other part-time or seasonal work, which can then lead to longer-term employment.

    WIA Hits a Roadblock

    The Senate hearing comes less than two months after backlash from some disability advocacy groups led to an indefinite postponement of consideration of a proposal to alter the rules governing sheltered employment. As part of a larger workforce bill that sets and funds workforce programs across the U.S., Title V of the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) attempts to update the Rehabilitation Act by maintaining the rights of individuals with disabilities to services leading to training and work.

    “The vocational rehabilitation system and other employment programs for people with disabilities authorized under WIA help people become independent and less reliant on federal programs,” testified Katy Beh Neas, senior vice president for Easter Seals, a nonprofit charitable organization that assists children and adults with autism and other special needs.

    “I’d like to see Congress increase funding for the vocational rehabilitation system to prevent long waiting lists and to ensure eligible individuals receive the services they need,” Beh Neas told SHRM Online. “Easter Seals supports dedicated funding for supported employment and assistive technology authorized under WIA that will help people with disabilities integrate into the mainstream workforce,” she added.

    Critics argue that a section of the bill would establish standards about who would be eligible to work for subminimum wages, offering sheltered employment providers a checklist to meet in order to deem people with disabilities eligible for subminimum wage jobs. Under the draft bill, individuals with disabilities could work for subminimum wage if they meet certain age-related requirements and if they do so while receiving job training designed to prepare them for competitive employment. Some disability advocacy groups, including the National Down Syndrome Society and the National Federation of the Blind, say this could have the unintended effect of increasing the number of people with disabilities employed in low-paying environments.

    Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.


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