Are Persons with Disabilities Exploited by Sheltered Workshops?

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April 8, 2014; Providence Journal

Seated in the audience at the U.S. Attorney’s press conference in Providence were four men who had spent most of their adult working lives employed in sheltered workshops, earning probably about one-third of the minimum wage for the generally menial work that so many people think the developmentally disabled are destined to do. Except in this case, the four men have now been placed in jobs where despite their disabilities, they earn the minimum wage. One of them, a man named Peter, was particularly proud, having just gotten his driver’s license and then, on the day of the presser, his first parking ticket downtown.

Typically, Peter and his companions would have been segregated away from the community at large and placed in a sheltered workshop for disabled Rhode Islanders. But this press conference was to announce a consent agreement between the state and federal governments that, according to U.S. Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels, would “bring people with disabilities out of segregated work settings and into typical jobs in the community at a competitive pay.” Peter and the others were there as celebrants in a civil rights milestone in their lives.

“The plan aims to gradually move the intellectually and developmentally disabled from meaningless tasks—unwrapping bars of soap and capping lotion bottles for $2.21 an hour—to jobs matched with their interests and abilities, even for the profoundly disabled,” write Linda Borg and Karen Lee Ziner for the Providence Journal. “It seeks to move these citizens away from coloring and watching television at institutional-like day programs, to the kinds of activities that the average person enjoys, such as going to a museum or working out at the gym.”

The Department of Justice had investigated Rhode Island’s segregated workshop system that, DOJ found, had “violated the civil rights of [3,250] Rhode Islanders with disabilities by shunting them to restrictive settings.” The investigation had begun in 2013 with a review of the civil rights of disabled students at the Harold E. Birch Vocational School in Providence and at a sheltered workshop, Training Through Placement Inc. in North Providence. The consent agreement plan calls for 2,000 people to get jobs in the community with competitive wages over the next 10 years.

Orquideo DePina used to be one of the sheltered, sub-minimum-wage workers who employed by Training Through Placement. At TTP, one of DePina’s supervisors told him, “You’re never going to get a job out there.” Now a beneficiary of the settlement, DePina goes to work every day at Progress Automotive, where his job responsibilities include changing oil and rotating tires. His boss at the auto shop, Greg Murphy, says there is “no question that Q should be working in the community” rather than a sheltered workshop. “He is a great employee and has continued to grow every single day.”

So put Rhode Island down on the side of states that are beginning, whether voluntarily or not, to rid themselves of the retrograde practice of sheltered workshops. But what about other states? A class action lawsuit against Oregon’s sheltered workshop filed in 2012 was joined by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2013. Oregon and other states are likely to follow Rhode Island in ridding themselves of this practice, but it will take more than just calling for a move of persons with disabilities out of sheltered workshops into jobs in the community. The Rhode Island settlement calls for the state to put money toward helping sheltered workshops transform themselves from segregated work settings paying their disabled employees next to nothing into agencies that function to place disabled persons like DePina into jobs that pay at least the minimum wage.

One of the workers whose employment situation improved in Rhode Island is 50-year-old Steven Porcelli. For 30 years, he worked at Training Through Placement in a sheltered workshop for $2 an hour—assembling jewelry, putting medical supplies in boxes, and packing grated cheese and stuffed peppers for an Italian food company. “I did want another job, because that’s what it was supposed to be: training through placement,” Porcelli said about his sheltered workshop experience. “I was doing piecework most of the time, which I didn’t like too much.” Now he is doing office work at a small business in Warwick, Rhode Island, where he is paid $8 an hour.

DePina and Porcelli have moved on to real jobs rather than suffer the continued exploitation of sheltered workshops, which for the most part may be in violation of provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But there are about 450,000 persons with disabilities who currently work in sheltered workshops. Porcelli’s reaction to the news that he is making four times as much at Automated Business Solutions as he did at Training Through Placement was “tell me about it.” His former companions in sheltered workshops might react similarly if they were freed from their segregated sheltered workshop lives.—Rick Cohen

  • Beth Gazley

    Rick, I really wish you had spoken with The Arc (www.thearc.org) or another of the leading disabilities advocates before suggesting all individuals with disabilities need to be “freed” from sheltered workshops. It’s more complicated than that. As a former board member of a disabilities agency, I’ve learned how diverse the field is — both in terms of the variation in client needs and abilities, and also in terms of how willing agencies are to help individuals achieve full employment. What’s most troubling about the Rhode Island case is the absence of client choice. And while full integration into the workforce should be the goal, I think there will always be a positive role for sheltered workshops in helping individuals with disabilities learn employment skills in the most supportive environment possible. Please also note that the sheltered workshops themselves vary considerably – at the agency I volunteered for, our clients were assembling surgical products in clean rooms for an international medical supply company based in our community.

  • Catherine Anderson

    My disabled brother is among the 450,000 who is working in a sheltered workshop. He has autism, minimal speech, no reading, math or writing ability because of mental retardation. He needs medication and 24-hour support. He can put labels on boxes and take minimal direction as long as he is supervised constantly. He is 57 years old and has worked in a workshop all of his adult life with a dynamic group of individuals who are interested in his growth as an individual. When he was young, no special education classes were open to him because he was deemed “mentally ill” while at the same time “mentally retarded.” No health insurance was available. My parents were told to put him in an institution and forget about him. This is how people back then understood the perplexing mix of symptoms that today is known as the autism spectrum. My brother is a terrifically sweet man who does very well despite his disabilities. I will tell you that it was not until the opening of sheltered workshops in our community did he gain the respect he deserves for his capacity to grow. My question for you: what will become of individuals like him? I have been told that through supportive employment, and with luck, if he found a minimum-wage job, he would work it for perhaps one day a week, then have to resort to a day-care center for the remainder of the week. Is this a positive choice? Or even a choice?

    I have followed Mr. Cohen articles over the years with interest and respect. However, I am discouraged by this very quick, superficial report on a deep issue that has many layers, histories, and perspectives. I encourage you to research more carefully the implications of this Rhode Island ruling for the many individuals who do not have the skills portrayed in this article. Care for the intellectually disabled has always been a very low priority by our culture as a whole, and when a spark fires a movement such as this one, a lot of misunderstanding is created. I can tell you the issue is nuanced. Of course the individuals Mr. Cohen describes should not have been denied minimum-wage; of course there have been abuses, but these injustices do not represent the whole. Please look deeply and more carefully and write a follow-up article.

  • R. Ruth Linden, Ph.D.

    Hello Rick,

    While I don’t wish to detract from your focus on the serious and complicated issue of sheltered workshops, the larger problem of how the U.S. disability system works–or, more properly, doesn’t work for many/most beneficiaries–needs to be acknowledged as well. The system is designed to prevent those individuals (the cases with which I’m most familiar involve people living with chronic illnesses, not those working in sheltered workshops) who might work part time, while receiving meager benefits and Medicare, from participating in the workforce with the threat of being dropped from the Social Security rolls and incurring a long and horrific battle to try to regain their benefits. It is a punitive, Catch-22 situation that calls for the reinvention of the disability system as we know it. This is among the key reasons that poverty is largely endemic among those who are disabled.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Ruth: Another in the long line of Catch-22 policies in our nation, no? There is much to be done regarding the rights–and employment–of persons with disabilities.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Beth: Yes, I agree, there are many good entities like The Arc that should be highlighted that don’t do what some of the entities being investigated by DOJ have done or are doing. Hopefully, NPQ will be publishing a solid piece highlighting those organizations and how they operate as distinct from what DOJ found in Rhode Island and elsewhere. Thanks for your comment.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Catherine; You’re exactly right. While there are abuses in the system of sheltered workshops, which the DOJ investigations in Rhode Island and elsewhere are uncovering, there is also more to the story, as in the situation of your brother’s employment in a sheltered workshop. The abuses are awful, particularly given the population being abused, particularly since persons with disabilities constitute America’s largest “minority group” and despite the ADA, its least protected in terms of civil rights. At the same time, there are excellent programs that serve people like your brother very well and should be distinguished from some of those that are being targeted by Justice in its litigation and settlement agreements. Hopefully, NPQ will soon publish a solid piece on the programs that do serve people like your brother well and respectfully. Thanks for your comment.

  • Brenda Cogdell

    I work at a community rehabilitation center and we provide vocational training to persons with disabilities. Individuals are paid on a piece-rate basis that is based on the commensurate wages in our area. True, some individuals with significant disabilities do not make minimum wage but it is based on their productivity. If we had to pay everyone minimum wage then we would no longer have viable work for them to perform because we bid on jobs like other businesses. We couldn’t afford to pay for 100% productivity if their productivity is 50%. But for those individuals, that paycheck (that the individual and family members thought they would never have) is so important to them!! We also have individuals without disabilities working along with individuals with disabilities. We perform simple work like packaging kits to building wiring harnesses. We also have employees with disabilities within other companies–and it is not an enclave as the individuals are employees with full benefits making more than minimum wage. We see our program as a stepping stone for many individuals–learning the importance of quality, following directions, accepting supervision, getting along with co-workers, etc. Our program is not only CARF accredited, but also has achieved ISO9001 and AS9100c certification (to be able to do work for the aerospace industry).Then we assist in them becoming competitively employed.

    I am disappointed that you would have an article that bashes services–not all programs are the same! Many are much more community-based and have an integrated workplace!

  • Linda Jackson

    I think this report could use some further research into the amount of money that the disability agency and/or sheltered workshop earns from federal and state sources like Medicaid. It could be that in some cases the American public, in addition to the clients/employees in the workshop, is being exploited.

  • Keenan Wellar

    YES. Sheltered workshops are exploitation but also a very serious affront to the rest of the community, by denying them the benefit of these individuals participating in society, rather than being warehoused out of site in an artificial parallel society.

    Here in Canada advocates look with some envy (not always, but in this type of situation, most definitely) the litigious nature of the US system and the ability to deliver change on this issue in states that have taken action, sometimes proactively, and sometimes when required by courts and legislation.

    Soon after writing this article http://bzbz.ca/workshopsexploit about a public story regarding sheltered workshops in my home town, it came to light that there is currently a case heading for the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal http://bzbz.ca/shelteredrights it is a case brought by one individual, and it is based on “loss of dignity” which I think is the most important aspect of the entire issue. Of course, there’s also the financial exploitation debate, but that’s a rabbit hole because there will be the inevitable arguments about productivity and how the minimum wage exemptions are “giving people a chance” since they “aren’t worth minimum wage.”

    What we are seeing now (somewhat like the conclusion in Vermont) is that the entire concept of sheltered workshops and segregated environments in general is an “innovation” of the 1970s that is now totally outdated based on our understanding and appreciation for the value of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in society, and our responsibility to support them to be included, rather than dedicated an incredibly array of resources to keeping them in segregation.