For more than a century, authorities have recommended putting disabled people to work in what are known as sheltered workshops, where they complete simple, repetitive tasks that don’t provide meaningful training for the workplace, let alone emotional rewards.
Employees are typically underpaid, and have few opportunities to engage with the outside community. While disability rights activists have been pushing back on the sheltered workshop model for decades, it’s taken longer for others to join in, and a new study provides some important information about how sheltered workshops can potentially harm the very people they’re supposed to help.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University took a look at 153 autistic adults and their levels of participation and engagement in the workplace, paying particular attention to the level of independence they were provided with as employees. The long-term study looked at how working environments shaped social skills, the ability to complete tasks of daily living and the level of autism symptoms. What the researchers found was that those working in relatively independent placements had more positive outcomes, developing more confidence, better social skills and more engagement with the community. The same did not hold true for those in sheltered workshop placements.
Two important findings emerge from this study. The first is that employment in general benefits autistic people (and disabled people in general). It provides opportunities to be active in the community, promotes independence and helps people add value to their lives, with many disabled people actively valuing and enjoying their work — contrary to common social attitudes about disability and what it means to have an impairment, many disabled people want to and are willing to work, despite their low employment rate. Furthermore, the study illustrates that people provided with more independent, traditional working environments fare better overall than those who are constrained to sheltered workshops.
This finding was echoed by a study published almost two years ago showing that supported employment was a better option than sheltered workshops for people with more moderate to severe impairments. Those who worked in sheltered workshops ended up making less money, being less able to support themselves and costing more overall to support, versus those working in supported employment (where an aide accompanies a disabled person at work). One possible theory about the study results?
“Participating in sheltered workshops diminished the future outcomes achieved once individuals became competitively employed, perhaps because the skills and behaviors individuals learned in sheltered workshops had to be ‘unlearned’ in order for the workers to be successful in the community.” In other words, because sheltered workshops aren’t like real-world jobs, they don’t provide opportunities to acquire useful job skills. The National Disability Rights Network has accused sheltered workshops of being “little better than institutions” in terms of what they offer disabled people, and it seems the federal government would agree.
Last year, the Obama Administration started examining sheltered workshop environments more carefully, weighing the possibility of pushing for better employment options for members of the disability community. If successful, the push could change the landscape for disabled people in the workforce forever, and it might mark a major victory in the fight to turn away from sheltered workshops.
Photo credit: Sean MacEntee.