Sheltered Workshops – #Disability #Employment in Canada and the USA, and a few thoughts about Integrated Employment

Canadian FlagHelena Jaczek, Canada’s Minister of Community and Social Services recently promised to end the sheltered workshop model. The focus is looking at restrictions on contracts made with providers and employment training centers (some who may be sheltered workshops and some who are not), and on stopping new admissions to the provincially funded sheltered workshops.

A good deal of the scrutiny came from The Star’s series, aptly titled: Sheltered Workshops, a blessing for developmentally challenged or slave labour? (Which is also an important reminder of the “power of the press” and what increased visibility can achieve).

We have all heard the story: People with disabilities working for pennies in segregated settings, sometimes for years, with no real training or effort made to better integrate these individuals into their community. Many will never leave their sheltered workshops.

Conceptual road sign with the word Opportunity and an Arrow pointing Up, indicating opportunity ahead - a clipping path is included to separate sign from bkg.

Road sign indicating increasing opportunity

And we have all heard the converse, usually from family members, about what a blessing these workshops are and how they provide a safe space for their child/daughter/son/cousin giving them “something meaningful to do” where they can be among their friends and others like them. Or how their family member has disabilities so severe they would NEVER be successful in the community.

The question that is brought up and answered in the Star series is, even though “Many enjoy the social life and a place to go during the day, but miss out on opportunities for real employment and legitimate wages.”

In the United States, the interaction between the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and the Olmstead federal law case are making it more and more difficult for individuals with disabilities to be assigned to sheltered workshops as an appropriate work placement.

While researching this article, I came across a department of Justice webpage that highlighted some specific individuals who were impacted by their efforts to enforce Olmstead and support greater integrated employment. Let me tell you a couple of their stories, and the story of their families.

STEVENSteven - Olmstead Story (young dark-haired man in khakhi's at a computer)

For the past thirty years Steven has done what millions of Americans do every day: he gets up early in the morning, goes to work, and earns a paycheck. The fact that Steven has an intellectual disability has never stopped him from seeking to earn a living. But, for most of Steven’s life he has had little choice other than to work in a segregated sheltered workshop where he earned well below minimum wage and had little to no contact with non-disabled persons, other than supervising staff.

From 1983-2013, Steven worked at the sheltered workshop and day program provider Training Through Placement, Inc. (TTP), located in a former school building in North Providence, Rhode Island. Steven was one of about 90 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities performing piecework at TTP. There, workers sat along cafeteria-style tables in old classrooms and breezeways, and were assigned tasks such as assembling, sorting, packing, and labeling various products like medical supplies and jewelry. Steven also worked on the facility’s “Pandora’s Products” line, stuffing peppers, grating cheese, and placing food products in jars.

When Steven first entered TTP, he thought it would be a short stay – just long enough to gain the skills necessary to secure long-term employment in the community. After all, as Steven points out, “the name of the provider is Training Thru Placement.” Steven had previously worked in a hardware store after high school and wanted to gain additional skills before returning to the general workforce. But that didn’t happen. Because of the lack of State-funded employment services and supports that would have made it possible for him to return to competitive employment, Steven was trapped at TTP for decades.

When he began working at TTP Steven earned approximately $2 an hour. Because TTP held a “special minimum wage” certificate, it was permitted to pay individuals with disabilities sub-minimum wages. These wage rates are based on workers’ individual productivity as compared to that of experienced workers without disabilities performing the same work. In spite of his three decades of experience, however, Steven was never promoted and never received a meaningful raise in wage. Thirty years after he began working at TTP, Steven still earned the same wage of approximately $2 per hour—substantially below Rhode Island’s minimum wage of $7.75.

Year after year, Steven asked for the services necessary to help him secure integrated employment. No effort was made to assist him in finding a job at a competitive wage that matched his strengths and interests.

All of that is now changing for Steven and the service recipients at TTP. Over the next year the State will provide supported employment services and placements to all people at TTP to help them find, get, keep, and succeed in real jobs. The services will be designed to help people access jobs in typical work settings where they can interact with non-disabled peers and earn at least minimum wage. And when individuals are not working, they will have access to integrated day services. Under the agreement negotiated with the state, individuals like Steven receive supported employment and integrated day services sufficient to support a normative 40 hour work week, with the expectation that individuals will work, on average, in supported employment for at least 20 hours per week.

As a result of the settlement agreement, Steven has finally fulfilled his thirty-year goal of community employment. Steven is flourishing in his new job at a local small business headquartered in Warwick, where he works at least twenty hours per week. He enjoys working in an office setting, and because of his effective self-advocacy, he persuaded his employer to provide him with computer training, which will allow him to expand his skill set and advance his career.

Thinking back on his time in the sheltered workshop, Steven noted, “we just did what we thought we were supposed to do, and while we believed that many of us could do more with our lives, we did not know how to make that happen.” When asked what it means to Steven to realize his dream of working in the community, Steven responded, “it is a big achievement for me; I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

The President of the company, Alan, initially did not know what to expect from Steven, but quickly realized he had made a prudent investment: “When you hire someone with disabilities, you think you are helping them out, but no business owner can possibly imagine the benefits that they will receive in return.” Reflecting on Steven’s dedication, abilities, and successes thus far, Alan says, “I can’t help but think if Steve had this opportunity twenty-five years ago, where he’d be today—we are very lucky to have Steve on board.”

Louis - Olmstead Case Study (Young man with white shirt and tie in front of a computer)LOUIS

In 2008, Louis graduated high school with a diploma, but because of a developmental disability that restricts his verbal-motor functions, he was unable to secure long-term integrated employment. His mother Lori – a fierce and devoted advocate for her son—found in a sheltered workshop setting “a closed and protective environment” where Louis “would be among others with similar needs.” Louis worked at the sheltered workshop Training Thru Placement (TTP) for two and a half years, earning well below minimum wage.

When the U.S. Department of Justice reached an agreement with the State of Rhode Island this past summer to transition sheltered workshop participants to integrated employment, Lori objected: “We were very happy with TTP because Louis had work, socialization, and the other clients looked up to him.” After some persuasion, however, Fedcap—the agency responsible for transitioning the workshop participants—convinced Lori to explore the option of supported employment.

In October Louis started his new job at Eleanor Slater Hospital, a state hospital, where he utilizes his strong computer skills and passion for mathematics to generate Excel reports, record timesheets, and complete other office-related duties. Louis works at the hospital for forty hours per week. He drives himself to and from work and especially enjoys having his own office, which he has decorated with Red Sox paraphernalia. When asked about challenges that he has faced in his job, Louis jokingly admits that wearing a necktie every day is still somewhat of a struggle.

Seeing her son thrive in the mainstream workforce has dramatically changed Lori’s perspective about supported employment. In fact, she recently joined Fedcap/TTP’s Board to promote the efforts of community employment for individuals with disabilities.

Looking back Lori admits: “By trying to protect Louis, I was capping him.” Lori says that in just a couple of months in his new job “Louis has come out of his shell and his confidence levels are through the roof.” Lori was especially touched when, after the Red Sox won the World Series, Louis went out and surprised his father and uncle (also ardent baseball fans) with championship t-shirts that he purchased with his own money. Louis’s job has forever changed the family dynamic and the course of his own life. Now, Lori says, “the sky is the limit.”

Of course, there are folks who would point out that Steven and Louis are the exceptions rather than the rule, many pointing to Vermont where only 36% of previous sheltered workshop employees are employed in the community. What do you think?



Minister Promises No New Admissions to Workshops in Ontario:

Olmstead Law Case:

Faces of Olmstead:

A Crip Led America #disability

After much of the outright obnoxious behavior of Donald Trump towards a reporter with a disability, there has been, quite rightfully, anger from the disability community. I say anger because rage, disgust, fury, etc. will quickly move me to extreme language…and that’s not hyperbole. It would also seem the rest of the country isn’t particularly fond of “Presidential-hopeful Trump’s”  picking on a person with a disability. In response, some enterprising person crafted the meme below. And…I LOVE IT.


Crip Led America

Image: Photo of Donald Trump book cover with photographs of Trump and text that says, “Crippled America: how to make America great again.” Coupled with book cover style photograph of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s text saying, “Crip Led America how FDR’s new deal made America great in the first place.”

If anyone knows the original author of this meme, please let me know.

And although I tend to steer clear of the political or at least represent multiple perspectives, this is one of those times where I have a hard time doing so, and frankly there IS no other side to such bullying.


Donald Trump under fire for mocking disabled reporter:

Trump mocks reporter with disability:

Donald Trump Says His Mocking of New York Times Reporter Was Misread:


Ban the Box: Good for People with Disabilities? And a few of my thoughts people with #disabilities in the #criminal #justice system

The blog quoted below is a repost from the Department of Labor’s blog that was posted on November 9, 2016. I wrote it to highlight some great work being done by the Integrated Recovery Network as a part of the Add Us In initiative. Over and over, it has been reiterated that many of the people going in and out of our prison system have some sort of mental health condition. Some estimates are as high as 50%. But I have to admit, I have not heard much from the disability community about these individuals. When the nation is talking about the school-to-prison pipeline, this is a population at risk. When we talk about living independently with appropriate supports etc. these are not usually the people mentioned. But they need to be.

Recidivism programs and advocates focus on work and housing but often do not address the mental health and/or substance abuse issues (or indeed any disability); disability programs do not address the very real problem of the interaction of these individuals with the criminal justice system. Unless both aspects are looked at, and until both communities can recognize the multiple facets and identities  – the intersectionality – of this population, we will continue to fail people with disabilities who are connected to the criminal justice system.


Over the past few years, a growing list of city, state and local governments; organizations; and private companies have come forward to support “Ban the Box.” It’s an initiative to persuade employers to remove the question “Have you been convicted?” from job applications and delay that inquiry until the final stages of the hiring process. The goal is for employers to make hiring decisions based on a candidate’s skills and qualifications, not their past transgressions. This month, President Obama took an historic step by directing the Office of Personnel Management to take action to ban the box in federal employment. As a result, OPM will modify its rules to delay inquiries into criminal history until later in the hiring process.

Encouraging employers to make this shift is critical. An estimated 70 million Americans — one in four adults — have a criminal record. Employment is a stabilizing factor in anyone’s life, providing a sense of structure and responsibility, and it’s strongly correlated with reduced recidivism for those reintegrating into the community following incarceration. Because employers often hesitate to hire an ex-offender, not having to check that box can make a massive difference.

Marsha Temple, of Los Angeles’ Integrated Recovery Network, knows well the stories of many of the individuals for whom the box is a major barrier. For more than 15 years, she has worked to improve mental health services for people who are homeless and/or have mental health disorders — about 44 percent of whom have spent time in jail, prison or community corrections. In California alone, there are about 33,000 prisoners with mental health disorders, roughly 30 percent of the incarcerated population.

As a part of the Add Us In initiative funded by the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, Temple has spent the last five years focusing on providing employment services to difficult-to-place candidates with disabilities, including those who have a history of addiction and other mental health disorders, which are so often intertwined with homelessness and incarceration.

One example is K.L., a 38-year-old Latina who at an early age became involved with drugs and gangs, eventually landing in prison. Upon release, she was determined to turn her life around. Recognizing that employment was key, she obtained certifications in both food handling and forklift operation. She was called for interviews, but no one would hire her. She felt the stigma of her record always followed her. But with increasing efforts to ban the box, she remained hopeful, and recently landed a great culinary job at a high-end market.

Temple and her organization address work barriers by providing community-based, wraparound and one-on-one supports to candidates like K.L. as they prepare for and sustain employment. Overall, 67.7 percent of Temple’s clients who received services had at least one work-related outcome, which could include permanent employment, work-based experience or an internship at a business, or involvement in an education or training program. By contrast, throughout California only 10 percent of individuals with mental health disorders receiving services became employed.

Given that many individuals with criminal records also have mental health disorders, banning the box has an important ancillary effect: it can also be a key strategy in helping to raise the employment rate — and thus economic self-sufficiency — of people with disabilities. In fact, through education about the over-representation of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system, Temple was able to solicit greater support for the effort from both government agencies and private companies. Many large employers, such as Target, have already signed on. What about you?

The New WIOA (a few points of interest)

In the United States, the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and its ensuing regulations and agency changes have causes quite a kerfluffle (yes, I actually used the word kerfluffle). And there are lot of folks out there with detailed analyses of the legislation. And some of which isn’t in legalese. :)

I’ve included a few resources below, but I thought it would be interesting to just quickly pull out a few points relating to vocational rehabilitation, youth employment, and sheltered workshops. I think here is where there are some significant changes that could have a long-lasting impact for the disability community. Among the key points are:

  • Fifteen percent of each state’s public Vocational Rehabilitation funds must be used for transition services like job exploration, career counseling, career assessment, work-based learning experiences, post-secondary opportunities, workplace readiness training, and advocacy training.
  • No youth with disabilities can be placed in a sheltered workshop unless all other options for working in an integrated community setting for standard wages, including customized and/or supported employment have been tried. (Although, I do wonder and worry if this will just create something of a generic “checklist” and then the youth may be placed there anyway. Though other than a complete ban, I cannot think of a good alternative).
  • Increased coordination of VR offices with schools, the workforce development system, and Medicaid, to better support successful transition.
  • Prohibiting schools from contracting with sheltered workshops (which schools have done in the past, working with some of these sub-minimum wage providers calling it “transition services”)
  • And lastly, one of the things that I think gives many attorney’s in the disability community heartburn, is that there is language that says that placement in a sub-minimum wage position an option under the Rehabilitation Act. (Historically, it never was listed as an explicit option, which allows for the Judicial system and cases like Olmstead to say that sheltered workshops are not legitimate placements and inherently discriminatory. Now, these workshops actually have statutory “permission” to exist as “good” options for people with disabilities under the Rehabilitation Act.)


WIOA Changes to the Rehabilitation Act:

National Association of Workforce Boards’ WIOA Overview (Not disability-specific):

Summary of Major Policies Included in Titles I and IV of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act:

American Network of Community Options and Resources:



(#DIW Podcast) ABLE Act Update and Crabs in a Barrel

Day in Washington #Disability #Policy Podcast. Update on the #ABLEAct and Crabs in a Barrel. Did we sacrifice #disability community solidarity and the good of the many for the good of the few?

Ka-Son Reeves Art - Crabs in a Barrel

Crabs in a Barrel by Ka-Son Reeves

Audio File:


Hello and welcome to Day in Washington, your disability policy podcast. I’m your host Day Al-Mohamed working to make sure you stay informed. Today, I want to give a bit of an update on the Able Act.

The ABLE Act was signed into law by President Obama on December 3rd, 2014. When Able accounts first came out, I’ll admit, from a policy standpoint, I was pretty excited. I even did a video Day in Washington about it. Let me give you the quick details:

ABLE Act savings accounts would basically allow people with disabilities (and their families), for perhaps the first time, to be able to save money for things they might need without risking their benefits, including health care. Things like, saving for school, or an accessible van (which let me tell, you I only learned recently how expensive those are), additional personal care services, or assistive technology…among other things. You see, public benefits like Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), and Medicaid for example require you prove that you’re poor. Basically, you can’t have more than $2,000 and that isn’t just cash, that is any asset or item of value. I still remember a young man I met during rehab. God, he couldn’t have been more than 19. He cried over the fact he had to give up his classic car. It was the one thing in his life that was his. He’d rebuilt it from scratch, piece by piece. And now, to get access to a surgery he needed and additional care for his diminishing eyesight, he had to sell it.

But, lets get back to the Able accounts. Now, people with disabilities and their families can have these savings accounts, which aren’t too different from the tax-exempt college savings accounts that you may be familiar with. Up to $14,000 can be deposited into the account per year up to a total of $100,000 before the individual loses some of their SSI. Another key advantage of the ABLE Act is that people with disabilities need never fear that they would lose their Medicaid. For many, that is the only way they can afford their health and personal care services.

So now, let me get to the compromises. Although the monetary limitations mentioned above are also compromises, the largest and the compromise that bothers me the most, is the fact that the ABLE act limits its eligibility to people with significant disabilities who got their disability before turning 26.

As of March, more than half of the states are now starting to put regulations in place to create these accounts. Which is good news. I have to admit some disappointment that the Able Act will not do everything that we all once hoped. In a world where X percentage of families with a member with a disability live in poverty, we already see growing economic disparities. As it stands, this bill would seem to benefit mostly those who can “afford” to use these accounts. Also, although the age limit may be helpful for individuals who are born with disabilities, there are many who acquire significant disabilities after 26 that can have devastating effects on their families and their children. And now, this option is no longer available to them.

I understand that this bill had and still has an expensive price tag and decisions had to be made. But this disturbs me in that I wonder if we are sacrificing one part of the community for another. When it came to ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and there was a push to remove Trans individuals from the protection of the legislation, I was proud to see many members of the LGBT community, and folks I worked with and lobbied with absolutely withdraw support. All of us, or none of us.

Obviously, there are significant pros and cons of this kind of attitude, but I can’t help but wonder if this highlights one of the larger issues within the disability community. In the rush for legislation, in the rush for bills that will pass, do we end up breaking down into groups based on disability? Based on class? Or color? Do we end up clambering over one another, pulling each other down, like crabs in a barrel? Or is this what disability compromise should be? After all, most disability organizations and lobbying are STILL operating mostly on a “by disability” basis aren’t they?

Perhaps I’m the idealist. I guess I wished to see an Able Act and a community that said “All of us, or none of us.” As always, I encourage you to read and come to your own opinion. Links are available in the comments. This is Day Al-Mohamed, hoping you continue to be well, and be informed.


 Day in Washington is a product of the Lead On Network. Comments and opinions expressed in this podcast should in no way be considered representative of opinions, statements or policies of any organizations, affiliations, employers or agencies connected with the host. Audio production provided by Chris Wright. Music is “If by Force” courtesy of the Podsafe Music Network and Twenty Twelve Records.