Susan's Blog

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Are We Sure We Should Close All Sheltered Workshops?

How to balance the will of the majority with the needs of the few? In the case of the Inclusion movement, balance may prove elusive. Like so many movements, the cause of disability rights is saddled with a heavy history that advocates now want to be sure to avoid. In the past we had institutions. The documented abuse that inmates suffered is the stuff of horror films. Now the trend is to close all sheltered workshops. Vermont and Massachusetts are among the first to take measures towards that goal. Of course; these are two of the most progressive states in the country, and sheltered workshops is a social justice cause if there ever was one.

Yet, not all of us agree with the wholesale condemnation of this practice for the simple reason that self-determination may be at stake. Closing institutions and sheltered workshops is an admirable goal but only when we are certain that the very folks using them will benefit. And if we are only hearing from advocates who can express themselves, or non-disabled caregivers and well-intentioned people, we may not actually be acting in the interests of the actual clients. “Nothing about us without us” is the call of the disability advocate today, and nothing could be more sensible. The sticky point comes in when you have the lower-functioning people doing piecework and enjoying it. On May 6, during the airing of her film “Rachel Is,” a documentary about an intellectually disabled young woman transitioning out of school, documentary filmmaker Charlotte Glynn tweeted: “Working in a sheltered workshop is the most important part of Rachel’s life. Work=structure=meaning.” Watching the film, it is clear that Rachel does indeed like doing what she does.

Not only must we consider the preferences of the sheltered workshop employees themselves; we have to ask if closing the workshops will lead to a better life for them. Will the workforce be willing and able to accommodate people who need so many supports? Even with the best of intentions, it is hard to imagine how our society will thoroughly and effectively absorb the highly challenged disabled who currently have occupations in the sheltered workshops. We love to imagine it, but what will the reality be? As it is, even the “higher functioning” disabled are grossly under-employed. The funding needed for job coaches and transportation alone would require states to make use of Medicaid dollars — dollars they must spend first in order to receive the 50% reimbursement from the Federal Government. States like Massachusetts, which do make use of these Medicaid dollars this way still have a gigantic waiting list of people who need employment support.

If the reality of closing sheltered workshops means an empty day coloring or watching television, how is that better for someone than having work to do — even if that work is “no better than” piecework? Who are we to judge what kind of work is best? Okay, certainly underpaid, beneath-minimum-wage work is not good. All workers should be fairly compensated. But — is our distaste based in something more amorphous, and less admirable? Is it that we well-meaning advocates wouldn’t want such work ourselves, so we imagine that it is beneath our loved ones as well?

We have to be careful that we are not making gross assumptions that we know what’s good for another human being. We have to make room for individual preferences and skill levels. Advocates must to the best of their abilities assess whether the sheltered workshop employee is enjoying himself — even if to “us” the work seems beneath them. Sure, if we can tell that the person in question is foundering, stagnating, feeling disenfranchised and discouraged, let’s work on helping him figure out what his vocation is, what his special talents are. But let’s not eliminate something wholesale on principal that it is wrong for everyone. For some people, work is work, and they are glad to have a job, any job. As one autistic woman once told me, “There is no such thing as a bad job. Only bad attitudes.”


I agree with the closing quote: however, a fair job deserves fair pay. If a non-autistic worker gets a certain wage for assembling calculator parts, or whatever, an autistic worker doing the same job deserves the same wage. Feeling frustrated to get pennies per hour, or per day, is a sign of health and competence! Sheltered work, if there is a place for it, should be the last resort (not the first) … And, as the law is now written, the law that protects sheltered workshops COULD technically be used to pay ANYone with a disability a pennies-per-hour/pennies-per-day wage for ANY kind of work. (It has not — yet — been used in that warm but — as the law now stands, and as it has stood on this matter for decades — it could be used in that way tomorrow, by any employer who wanted to.)

— added by Kate Gladstone on Thursday, June 12, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Susan you are so right. My son is non-verbal and not able to work competitively but loves to have regular, structured things to do. He has no concept of being paid, so that doesn’t matter to him. He has not yet turned 22 so has not yet hit the adult world, and at this point it is clear that he won’t ever be in a sheltered workshop, which is okay as long as he can do something. We can’t put all disabled people into a single basket. Let’s think this through and not rush to judgment. The Olmstead case basically made sheltered workshops against the law, and Rhode Island is leading the way with closing them down since it was sued by the Justice Department. Rhode Island reached a settlement with the US government in April that may be a road map for the other 49 states, including Massachusetts. I am optimistic that our state will handle this with compassion, but the headlines of people being forced to “sort buttons” burn me up — that’s exactly what our son likes to do!

— added by Karen Mariscal on Friday, June 13, 2014 at 8:08 am

Bouncing off Kate Gladstone: I agree – the call for closing sheltered workshops has to do with the pay workers collect (see the NY Times this spring: The Boys in the Bunkhouse.) It is not necessary to close the workshops down; while inclusionary settings are something we should strive for, money rules. Why not explore the paradigms of workers’ cooperatives?

— added by VMGillen on Friday, June 13, 2014 at 1:50 pm

I agree that sheltered workshops should stay open. Being able to work is important. Work gives you a purpose. When you earn a paycheck then you can pay your bills, pay taxes, buy gifts for family members and donate money to charity. Work helps you feel included in the community.

If people with disability can get entry level jobs then they can start moving up the ladder. After I graduated with a bachelor’s degree it took me two years three months to start working.

— added by Maria on Saturday, June 14, 2014 at 10:05 pm

What happens to the people whose behaviors make them too challenging for the majority of “sheltered workshops,” typically because of staffing ratios and quality and training of staff? The resource-sapping ones such as my son already are in a tenuous position of few programs being appropriate as places where they will be successful. This summer my son is aging out of a behaviorally based year-round school program that provided structure and where he has functioned successfully and happily. Because adult services are not mandated as they are under IDEA, he is at risk of being at home with NO services. He has a 90-day assessment with a good service provider that tries to provide meaningful experiences through leisure activities. He is starting out where the people go when they get kicked out of the other placements in my county. I cried far from tears of joy at his “graduation” because we are losing so many services he still needs. Even if he gets a Medicaid waiver finally this summer, services won’t be comparable to what he has had under IDEA.

— added by Julie on Sunday, June 15, 2014 at 9:57 am

Totally agree. My former place of employment had to close the workshop (there were also community jobs) and it’s terrible. Many individuals LOVED it. They were paid based on how much work they did for piecework and hourly for other jobs. It was a different place to be, different people to be with, and it was quiet and steady and consistent, perfect for those who need it. Some people can’t work in the general work environment. It’s okay to not be able to, just as (in my opinion) it’s okay to work in a sheltered environment.
Lots of people love to sort and package and match to sample. They are good at it! Michele

— added by Michele on Monday, June 16, 2014 at 3:05 pm

I see it like this, Closing them is…
A good idea whose time has come, and yes it will cause disruption!

But it can/should (if we help it along) create “disruptive innovation”.

Don’t want to be too heavy here but disruptive innovation (spoken about in depth by Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen) “…is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.

The term is used in business and technology literature to describe innovations that improve a product or service in ways that the market does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers in a new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.”

Ok I haven’t been drinking.

Although Professor Christensen lectures about disruptive innovation in the business world and existing technology markets I can totally translate it to this topic.

Translation: The creation of a way to pay/employ someone, even with a profound disability, will create a new market and value of employment rewards and benefits that can create a value network!

It can be small micro business organized around activities of employment that make money! This will take years of course but why not now! I love the idea of “displacing” old technology or old ways of doing a thing designed to improve a service or way to deliver a service or employment activities!

“….in ways that the market (employment ideas) does not expect, typically first by designing for a different set of consumers (persons served) in a new market and later by lowering prices in the existing market.”

I don’t think it is – keep them open vs close them.

I think we need to think BIG.

I can imagine a world of small micro business owned by persons served, doing activities of high interest and or skill, that makes money. This does not have to be full time. But it can be an idea, a business or a set of paid activities that do not limit an individual to a workshop. It can be small amount of hours a week with plenty of time to be supported by other structured settings, recreation or pursuits.

— added by Lauri Medeiros on Friday, June 27, 2014 at 10:18 pm

I am the parent of a mentally challenged adult who can not sufficiently read or write, but desparately wants to work. In regards to mainstreaming persons with these issues into the public workforce is difficult to say the least. In my opinion there is nothing wrong with sheltered workshops if
appropriately run. The average so called normal person persuing job hunting knows how difficult it is to find a job, just imagine walking in the shoes of a mentally challenged persons shoes. The door automatically shuts before it opens, supervising mentally challenged people is not for everyone and requires a great deal of patience and knowledge on how to handle it. So why not provide sheltered workshops? It all boils down to where the money is going to come from and no one not even myself like to hear about taxes going up. Lets take a look at where a lot of our governments money does go, for example the study of how fast ketchup comes out of the bottle, special projects that go nowhere that politicians come up with just to put money in there districts. We all like to be productive and are happier when we are,
how about the mentally challenged and disabled. Sheltered workshops should not be disbanned in my opinion…..

— added by Linda Reichert on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 at 6:00 pm

I agree that sheltered workshops should stay open there are some mentally challenged people who can’t work in mainstream Jobs and they need a sheltered workshop to go too it does make them feel good about themselves to be working and earn a paycheck. I have have Autisum myself and I used to work in a sheltered workshop called hope services. it was a great workshop. I did get mainstreamed into the working community. That is another good thing about sheltered workshops they get to really know the clients and who can be mainstreamed and who can’t. I loved the Job I had in the working community. it was group supported employment and a Job coach was always there. Anyway I think the workshops to stay open.

— added by Ursula on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 1:20 am

i’m opposed to keeping sheltered workshops open because they pay subminimum wages it’s wrong i worked at goodwill industries of central north carolina 1235 south eugene greensboro nc i was sent there bo vocational rehabilitation december 6th 1984 they wanted me to work at industrial services of guilford which slave labor services they put the disabled/non disabled in warehouse settings who wants to go to work in a sheltered workshop i meant sheltered sweat shop it’s time for the segregated workshops to be closed jn north carolina food to the workshop managers it’s time for you to work as slaves make pennies an hour let the disabled/ non disabled make your six figure salary and make you live in a home less shelter when i worked for goodwill industries i was one step closer holding a cardboard sign saying need money for food i’m a slave at shetered workshop/sweatshop making very little money i’m thinking about suing goodwill industries for cheating me out of $94.00/week

— added by tim brnnett on Thursday, November 20, 2014 at 12:44 am

my thought is sheltered employment should not be done away with. it is and can continue to be a viable option however there need to be appropriate community worksite options to fit the unique needs of the partcipant. the one size fits all philosophy does not cut it. there is a lot of good that exists with sheltered employment. the facts are that supported employment is not for everybody.

— added by lurlene on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at 10:14 am

Sheltered workshops most certainly need to stay open. They are an extremely viable option. People with disabilities get to go to worksites plus they are afforded the opportunity for training opportunities. It’s all political though the government doesn’t want to give it a chance. They adopt the sink or swim mentality.

— added by abbie on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 12:34 pm

I feel sheltered workshops should not be closed, politicians with the sink or swim mentality do not know what it entails having a dIsabeled mentally challenged son or daughter. This category of individuals need structure and
Support in a variety of working conditions, which I feel most run of the mill employers would not be able to provide nor would they want to.
Politicians need to see and hear the pride these people express in having a job. It increases there self worth, self esteem and knowing they can do a variety of things. Closing sheltered workshops will end up the same way as the
Mainstreaming Effort did–nothing and who ends up on the short end –?–, the mentally disabled..

— added by Linda Reichert on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 7:26 pm

An awful lot of people are worried that are kids are being forced into these Oliver twist scenarios, but honestly, our disabled are fairly well treated in this country.
My son gets 750 SS! every month, another 800 from his PPP program. He gets food stamps,a free cel phone, free transportion to and from work, a subsidized cafeteria {so lunch is like 1 dollar} and two free weekend vacations at a luxury hotel every year. So…no…I dont feel he is being exploited. He is a terrible worker,cannot multi task, has a hard time concentrating and doesnt like to socialize. He is sexually naive and enjoys playing with fire….no way does my son belong in the community!!!He belongs in a sheltered environment where he can be safe and secure and protected…not in a work place where so much will be demanded of him that he can not begin to understand.

— added by Tara Terminiello on Thursday, October 27, 2016 at 9:36 pm