States Empower Disabled Employees by Ditching Sheltered Workshops

Changes in federal policy and social attitudes are resulting in steady phaseouts of the sheltered workshop model that was once common for disabled workers. One state in particular–Minnesota–has adopted an innovative solution to get employees out of these exploitive situations and into the mainstream workforce.

This shift represents a huge win for disability rights advocates, and it’s especially important in an election year. Disabled people are more proactive than ever about voter organization and advocacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the unemployment rate for disabled people is nearly twice that of their nondisabled peers.

Sheltered workshops became popular around the turn of the twentieth century. By mid-century, they entered public policy models as the default approach to employment for disabled people. In this setting, disabled people are segregated into a working environment where they complete basic, repetitive tasks — like assembling products, sorting consumer goods, performing basic furniture repairs, and so forth — at very low wages.

Thanks to a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act, disabled people can be paid subminimum wage on the grounds that they can’t do as much work as nondisabled employees. Sheltered workshop employees wind up making less than $3 hourly in many cases, and sometimes less than a dollar. Not only is the situation unjust to disabled people, but it also creates a situation ripe for economic exploitation. Employers can simply outsource basic labor to disabled people to cut down on costs.

Sheltered workshops also contribute to social isolation. Workers don’t develop social or job skills that could help them live independently, leaving them trapped without alternatives. The low pay means that many cannot afford to live on their own and instead must settle in group homes or rely heavily on government benefits to supply them with subsidized housing.

Because disabled people aren’t out and about in the community, a strong social divide also develops. When people never interact with disabled people, their attitudes about disability stereotypes tend to persist. For example, the notion that a wheelchair user can’t successfully work independently won’t be challenged when nondisabled people never encounter someone who uses a wheelchair for mobility on the job.

All of these concerns contribute to federal and state government pushes to get rid of sheltered workshops and provide disabled people with better employment options. Vermont was the first to aggressively attack sheltered workshops in the early 2000s, and now Minnesota is coming up with its own approach.

The “Way to Work” program mirrors integrated employment and supported employment models used in other states. Under Way to Work, disabled people meet with counselors to discuss their skills and aspirations. The counselors aid in finding appropriate jobs to apply for and help disabled workers achieve more independence.

When officials first started talking to disabled people, they were surprised by how many wanted out of sheltered workshops but couldn’t find jobs. As it turns out, many disabled people need additional support or face barriers like lack of transportation. Thanks to this program — modeled after another pioneered by Governor John Kasich — disabled Minnesotans can have a new lease on life.

The integrated employment approach values getting disabled people into a mixed workplace, rather than keeping them out of the workforce. Disabled people in these settings have access to social opportunities and dignified treatment — including eligibility for the same minimum wage all workers should be entitled to, no matter their ability level.

Supported employment, a related model, provides similar mentoring and support. The model also offers long-term assistance for people who need more monitoring to succeed in the workplace.

Other approaches to helping disabled people thrive in the workplace can include aides and assistants who shadow people while they train. Additionally, subsidies from local disability organizations to partially cover wages can encourage companies to hire disabled people as part of their workforce.

Every time a state successfully models techniques for removing disabled employees from exploitative environments, disabled people and their communities win. Smart candidates should focus on programs like Way to Work and consider how they can be implemented at the federal level. We all can benefit from pulling disabled people out of poverty and embracing our diverse American landscape.

Photo credit: Dansk Handicap Idrćts-Forbund

52 comments

Jack Y
Jack Y9 months ago

thanks

SEND
Jack Y
Jack Y9 months ago

thanks

SEND
John J
John J9 months ago

thanks for sharing

SEND
John J
John J9 months ago

thanks for sharing

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Jeanne R
Jeanne Rogers1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND
Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

SEND