Disability Rights: Sheltered Workshops Are Today’s Institutions
The Oregon chapter of the Cerebral Palsy Association and eight individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities have filed a class-action lawsuit charging that thousands of Oregonians with disabilities are stuck in dead-end “work-activity programs” where they typically make less than the minimum wage. Placement in such programs, in sheltered workshops, is in violation of protections against discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.
Michael Bailey, president of the National Disability Rights Network, says that the suit was filed in Oregon because that state was once a national leader in training individuals with disabilities for jobs in the community where they would be paid the minimum wage or more. In 1988, about half of those now receiving state support were being transitioned into mainstream work environments with competitive wages. But in the 1990s, the lawsuit says that Oregon
“reversed course, increasing its reliance on segregated workshops while simultaneously decreasing its development and use of supported employment services.”
Work-activity programs where people perform simple packaging and assembly tasks in locations segregated from the general public have become the end point for too many individuals with disabilities, rather than serving as transitional programs that would ultimately lead to workers being integrated into the mainstream community.
Currently, more than 2,300 individuals with disabilities are in effect warehoused in such sheltered workshops in Oregon. Such facilities, says the lawsuit, “offer virtually no interaction with non-disabled peers, … do not provide any real pathway to integrated employment and .. provide compensation that is well below minimum wage.” A year ago, the National Disability Rights Network published a report stating that sheltered workshops have simply “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.” Such facilities keep individuals with disabilities out of sight and, consequently, out of the mind of the public.
A sheltered workshop is not the kind of place we believe our teenage son Charlie, who’s on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum, should spend his days as an adult. Years ago, Charlie was briefly in an after-school program for children in our town, with a local organization that provided some services for children and adults with disabilities. His program was located at one end of a large open, cement-floored, space, furnished with some old couches, tables and chairs and an old refrigerator. At the far end were some tables on which were bins of what looked like tubing and other plastic items. There were also smaller containers and bins. When I picked Charlie up around 4pm, several adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were sitting in front of a TV set; they belonged, I was told, to a day program in the same facility.
The atmosphere at the facility was friendly but there was, too, a feeling of inertia and deadend-ness. Charlie himself was only at the program for a few weeks; he was not happy there and it was quite clear to me why.
At Charlie’s current school (a county autism center in New Jersey), he is already receiving valuable vocational training. He likes to be busy and is showing an aptitude for numerous tasks. While it’s impossible to know what job options might be out there for Charlie given his challenges, and whether or not he could handle being in various work environments in the community, I am determined that he have the chance to do so. Oregonians with disabilities, and individuals with disabilities throughout the US, should have the opportunity to work in the community and be paid a fair wage, too.
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Photo by Ted Drake