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: