Should Sheltered Workshops be Eliminated?

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I read a column recently in which the author argues that Americans celebrate the 23rd Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act this summer by "convening a series of national dialogues about ableism." Ableism is prejudice against people who have disabilities. It has many parallels such as racism, sexism, and classism, which are prejudices against people based on race, gender, and social class.

I affirm this author's desire to have a national dialogue about ableism. Ableism runs rampant around us as evidenced, for example, by the higher unemployment rate of people who have disabilities compared to the general unemployment rate, and by the fact that fewer people with disabilities attend worship on a regular basis by percentage compared to the general population.

However, this author offers only one suggestion for rooting out ableism, "We can create positive change and eliminate stereotypes by phasing out segregated classrooms and sheltered work and congregate activities that reinforce popular stereotypes."
I have a big problem with his suggestion. Here are three reasons for my concern.

First, it's patronizing. This suggestion partonizes people who have disabilities by deciding for them what is best. Some people who live with disabilities WANT to participate in sheltered work and congregate activities. To argue that they should not be allowed to do this is like arguing that immigrants of Scottish descent should never be allowed to gather with others of Scottish descent because that would reinforce stereotypes of Scots. Shouldn't Scots be allowed to decide if they want to "congregate" or not? Likewise, shouldn't people with various disabilities be allowed to decide if they want to work or live together with other people with disabilities? Choice is the key! Eliminating options for people does not reduce ableism, it reinforces it.

Second, this suggestion promises a bleak future for some people who live with disabilities. Some people that I know who work at our local sheltered workshop do not have the skills ever to work for a traditional employer. For example, some do not understand safety considerations, and others cannot work at a speed required by traditional employers. So if this opportunity were eliminated, they would be stuck at home all day watching TV instead being out with friends, contributing to society through their work, and earning money.

Third, phasing out segregated classrooms would doom some students to spending their days in schools that are totally irrelevant to their educational needs. Our oldest daughter Nicole lives with severe multiple impairments. If she spent her days in a typical high school classroom, she would be confined to her wheelchair all day. As it is, in her "segregated" classroom, she is continuing to learn skills that are relevant to her. What is true for her is true for many others in segregated special education classrooms as well. If Nicole were in a traditional high school, she would go backwards in terms of the skills and abilities she has currently.

Let's not eliminate all segregated classrooms and sheltered work and congregate activities. Let's work against ableism, including the implicit ableism that in a patronistic way seeks to eliminate valid choices for activities made by some people with disabilities.

I'd love to hear from you. What do you think?

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Mark,

I am in full agreement with your 3 points and aguement for keeping vocational workshop programs for people who have more significant barriers that would most likely keep them from ever finding regualr, meaningful employment.  Having worked for many years in the rehabilitation field, including 28 years as a case manager and employment specialist in a local vocational workshop, I can fully appreciate the opportunities that this type of work place offers to those who can thrive in a supportive environment that allows them to learn skills, earn a little money, and reach their potential, whatever level that may be.  I recently debated the issue in a meeting of State rehabilitation counselors and other professionals, so I know that it is an issue that is and will confront communities around the country.  Those of us who see our selves as strong advocates for persons with disabilities, or who live with a disability need to be aware of this issue and be prepared to speak to it from our experience and from our hearts.

John Foster

Holland, MI

Guide

John, thanks for your comment. With your level of experience and your history of strong advocacy for employment of people with disabilities, your opinion holds a lot of weight with me. I just don't understand people who claim to be disability advocates and as part of their so-called advocacy seek to TAKE AWAY choices that some people who have disabilities want.

Hi Mark,

As you are aware, the movement towards greater independence for persons with disabilities has been gathering steam since the "90's/2000's.  Starting with independent or semi-independent housing, community awareness and accessability, it has now moved into the realm of employment rights and accessability.  While I am very much in favor of improving the quality of life for persons with disabilities in these ways, my knowledge and experience have kept me from taking an over-zealous stand against community supports, like vocational workshops, and adult foster care, etc.  My position is simply that, for each individual with a severe or chronic disability, there should be choices that they and/or their family or guardian can review and determine what will work best for them.  This is how most people live their lives, so to have choices taken away is to not be allowed to live in the world as the rest of us do.  Several years ago, the Ottawa Co. CMH, where I live here in Michigan, tried to withdraw most of their support funding for the local vocational workshop, in favor of folks being involved with unpaid, community awareness programs.  In-home services were to be another option.  Effectively, the CMH was deciding to no longer offer the option for some folks to go to their jobs, earn a paycheck, and learn new work and social skills.  Parents of the people at the workshp gathered as a group, and spoke out against this idea, and eventually, the CMH board gave up on the idea.  Grassroots efforts such as this have taken place in several other counties in Michigan that I am aware of, although I have not followed up to know whether they were successful in protecting their vocational workshop programs.  This issue of course, has much to do with dwindling state and federal funds for maintaining such programs, but advocates for change have jumped on the bandwagon as well.

I hope our conversation here will generate more interest and comments from others on either side of this issue.

John 

Mark, thank you for your blog entry.  I appreciate your comments and can agree with you that we should not close sheltered workshops.  I have worked with adults with developmental disabilities for a number of years in both residental and vocational areas.  I see a gap between employment and the sheltered workplaces.  Employment options work well for individuals who can gain skills and eventually work independently, while sheltered workplaces or day programs work well for individuals who have limited skills or who need more support.  What about individuals who deeply desire to have meaningful work and engage with society (beyond recreational opportunities offered by sheltered day programs) but who will always need a level of support (making employment not an option).  Can we imagine creative ways to provide meaningful work to people with developmental disabilities who desire to be integrated and yet will need on-going support?  I hope and pray that we can.

Guide

Caroline asks a really good question, so I'll repeat it: "Can we imagine creative ways to provide meaningful work to people with developmental disabilities who desire to be integrated and yet will need on-going support?" Ideas anyone?

This would be a many faceted discussion.  If it were possible, a number of groups and interested parties should be invited.  My initial choices would include: persons with a disablity, disability advocates, vocational rehabilitation counselors, community mental health professionals, employers, employment specialists, and local, state and federal legislators.  I would also consider including advocasy groups like Nat'l. Alliance for the mentally Ill (NAMI) , Centers for Independent Living, Brain Injury Association (BIA), and groups that support and advocate for other disabilities.  I would include churches on the list, depending on their willingness to participate.  Quite a list, and I'm sure there are more.  The enactment of the ADA, and new rules under the EEOC have improved the outlook for employment for many persons with disabilities, but those mentioned by Ms. Short are the ones who fall through the cracks of the laws.  The other consideration to take into account is how employers have changed their job descriptions and hiring practices since the economy took a downward turn, and how they are reacting to the new health care law.  Not to get too political about that, but I am seeing many private and government employers taking steps to downsize their full-time positions to part-time, or taking other steps to avoid what they perceive as the higher costs of proving health care under the new laws.  I believe this will have an impact on persons with disabilities who are or will be seeking work.  Hope this isn't getting the conversation off track.

Guide

John, a great suggestion for a major conversation. This gets even more complex as we consider that many of the Network readers are Canadian (including Caroline, whom I know). There is no federal disability law in Canada comparable to the Americans with Disabilities Act, though there is a federal health care system. Each province has its own set of laws pertaining to accessibility of built environment, work, etc. Whew!

Yes Mark, I didn't think about your readers in Canada or other countries where the laws and issues for the disabled are different than in the USA.  It would be a major undertaking just to begin a larger discussion in this country, much less to bring those outside the USA into it.  I guess your blog here is a small start, eh?  I hope more readers will weigh-in on this.

Participant

I am not sure if we can continue this discussion a bit further.  I just came across the posts, and found them very timely.  I serve on a board in  Ontario called "Community Living."  We operate a sheltered workshop, plus we support individuals who are able to work in the regular workforce.  In Ontario most sheltered workshops have closed, but a new one has just opened up again in the city of Brampton.  There has to be room for sheltered workshops in our society, because regular places of employment are just not able to make all the accommodation.  However, the difficulty is still how to employ the folks meaningfully in a sheltered workshop.  We are experiencing  lots of challenges in our workshop to make them financially feasible.   Diane.

 

Guide

Hi Diane, yes, you name some good criteria for responsible sheltered workshops: meaningful work and financial feasibility. I would add a third criterion: justice. I suspect that many people are opposed to all sheltered workshops because some workshops have engaged in exploitation and even abuse of those employed. But I agree that to throw them out completely would be a great injustice as well, because it would leave many people with disabilities with nothing to do for a day time activity, versus a meaningful and just sheltered workshop that gives people who could not work in the marketplace an opportunity to fulfill their God-given responsibility and desire to work.

Diane,

Having worked as a trainer, casemanager, and job placement staff in a sheltered workshop (I prefer the term, "vocational training center") for much of my career, I can fully understand the challenges you and most programs of this type face.  I am not familiar with Brampton, or the surrounding area, but I assume there are businesses that could be tapped for potential work for the folks in the training facility.  It takes commitment, and a willingness to be flexible, and to think outside the box in order to build partnerships with local employers.  The board and the staff all should be seeing this as part of thier job there.  At the workshop I was at, we had a dedicated team that was out making contacts in the community and maintaining those relationship while building new ones.  Getting involved with the local chambers of commerce was helpful.  We also tapped into some set-aside work contracts that the U.S. gov't. makes available to vocational training centers to help bring work in-house.  In several cases, we were able to have small, supervised crews of folks go out to an employer's facility to perform specific work projects.  Some of these lasted for months, while some were shorter in duration.  But it was quite useful because it gave our workers a chance to work outside the workshop while obsering how other people work in the community.  I don't know if the Canadian gov't. provides work projects for workshops, but that would be something to check into.  I wish you good luck!

John