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


LMj Sunshine
James Merit5 years ago

thank you

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

I don't know if they started in a workshop, but the Safeway in this town obviously has a policy to hire the disable. There are at least three employees that have developmental disabilities but are a regular part of the staff and the people who shop there have had no problem with accepting them as such. I say kudos to them!

Carole Cherne
Carole Cherne6 years ago

My adult daughter is stuck in such a workshop. She is capable of so much more, with no opportunity to contribute to society and make more money. It is so sad. She is depressed, and this has a great deal to do with the lack of challenge, lack of opportunities to be around typical people, to earn a real paycheck, she faces daily. She is one of the bravest individuals I've ever met, and I feel so badly for her. And guilty that I don't know what to do to change her situation.

Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson6 years ago

My mom worked with special needs "kids" (they were all actually late teens up through 30 or so) and escorted them to their jobs (if they were able to work) and to our local community college. I see a lot of places giving REAL effort in making those individuals a part of our community

Raymond B.
Raymond Bilodeau6 years ago

I have been involved as a lawyer and as a friend to mentally disabled persons for almost 40 years. I have gone through "de-institutionalization" in the 70s to the current state of institutionalization of a different kind. The "consumers" have little choice in where they live and where they do something during the day. The states do not have the money to pay for quality job-training, much less find minimum-wage jobs these "consumers" can do, certainly cannot pay their "consumers" minimum wage for anything they might be able to do.

We as a society prefer not to see these people in the workplace, or even at a restaurant or mall. We certainly do not want to pay for them to work. These "consumers" are not stupid. They quickly learn that sitting and watching TV or going out to put a basketball through a hoop or doing nothing will be tolerated and becomes a habit.

It gets worse as parents and siblings age and die or get busy with families of their own and stop their involvement with these "consumers." Since few of them can advocate for themselves, the programs they are offered - if they have not "aged-out" - become worse and worse, and medical conditions may be left untreated for lack of someone who can authorize care (guardian).

Linda T.
Linda T6 years ago

This sort of segregation starts long before they get to the work place as unfortunate as it is. In many schools the disabled classes are all put in one small hallway, they are only allowed to eat lunch as a group, they are not offered P.E, they are seldom offered living skills anymore as part of their educatioanl training. We as a society are going backwards even though the medical treatment for these shildren has vastly moved forward the minds of those we entrust these children to have not.

Fern D.
Fern D6 years ago

More would be better, but something is better than nothing. For individuals with no family or support system, it may be a choice between this dead-end job and the streets, and even programs like this one will disappear if we continue to cut worthwhile spending and neglect to fairly tax the wealthy and corporations. Yeah, let's buy more warfare and football stadiums!

Debbie W.
Past Member 6 years ago

Society has to care enough to include ALL ... and it clearly doesn't. How sad a species are we?

Stefanie Roszkowski

I am psychologically disabled, having been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (basically schizophrenia and major depressive disorder), obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and Tourette's. I'm about to be kicked out of my apartment by my ex who calls me a child because I can't work. I've been looking around for options of where to live and how to keep myself alive. Workshops for the disabled are something I was seriously considering, but now that I know what they're like (or can be like), I don't want to be put in what essentially seems like a shoddy daycare with pittance pay.

Mercedes Lackey
Mercedes Lackey6 years ago

One wonders how long it would take Repiglicans to turn "workshops" into "workhouses."