Wednesday, June 26, 2013

More On Sheltered Workshops

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I think the "30 Rock" story … the people interviewed, how it was filmed, and especially Harry Smith's pro vs. con comments at the end … laid out the issues pretty well for what had to be an audience that mostly had never heard of there being any controversy about Goodwill Industries or other sheltered workshops.

The only thing that frustrated me is that they never adequately dealt with the argument the Goodwill CEO kind of put forward, that by their definition at least, most of the workers they employ are significantly less productive, because of their disabilities, than non-disabled workers. In other words, the sheltered workshop argument is that this is NOT an "equal pay for equal work" situation. It is not equal work, which is why the pay is below the usual minimum wage. The alternative, by this interpretation, is for these folks to have no job at all, because "normal" workplaces have assume that everyone is at least in the same ballpark in terms of qualifications, productivity, and quality.

The advocate from the autism group makes a decent point that all workplaces have inefficiencies and good and not so good workers, but they still have to be paid at least minimum wage. But this only partially answers the productivity question. What the Goodwill CEO was trying to say, diplomatically I guess, is that these workers aren't just slightly inefficient, like what you're used to in an average workplace … they are fundamentally less productive, will never be more productive, and so it's a blessing for them to have a job at all.

That's it. That's the only real argument they have. And it's been persuasive since the 1930s, because that is the basis of the law that makes paying these disabled workers less than minimum wage.

By the way, when the Goodwill CEO mentioned "elitists", he was invoking long-standing divisions and disconnects within the broader disability community. I remember many times discussing this sort of issue with people who worked mostly with people who had cognitive impairments. One of the most common arguments they made was that my standards of fairness were all very well for people with my kind of disabilities, but didn't apply to people with significant cognitive disabilities. In effect, they were saying that they understood that a sheltered workshop would be totally inappropriate for me, but that I failed to understand that it is appropriate for some.

I could almost buy that, except that in practice, most sheltered workshops aren't that picky about who they "employ", and have plenty of people "working" in them that could get and keep a mainstream job, given a little ingenuity, support, and training aimed at advancement, not treading water.

What clinches the argument here is that more and more sheltered workshops have already been closed, with resources transformed to provide extra support to people doing meaningful work in mainstream community jobs, for minimum wage or above. This includes not just the so-called "high functioning" people, but people with more severe disabilities.

Basically, I think Harry Smith summed it up very well when he suggested that this is simply an out of date model that's long overdue for an overhaul.

It would be great if NBC did a followup story showing how other models, like supported employment do a better job for the same kinds of people.

A few more thoughts:

- Families of people with disabilities who are in these sheltered workshops do often support and defend them, but their concerns and perspectives aren't always the best for their adult "children". Many, though not all parents prioritize stability, certainty, and perceived safety over almost all other goals, including fair pay, fulfillment, and what the individuals actually want.

- The CEO salaries thing ... I usually think that arguments about CEO salaries are overblown, at least in terms of impact. Cutting a CEO's salary in half, or quartering it, usually wouldn't make that much of a difference to the average workers. However, in this case, the difference is so extreme that I think radical change is in order, and might actually be possible.

- The blind woman interviewed, who used to work at a Goodwill sheltered workshop, said that her low wages barely even paid for her transportation to and from work. When our local sheltered workshop agency stopped providing van rides for sheltered workshop workers, my agency got lots of calls from counselors who were trying to figure out how to get "their clients" to and from "work" in an affordable way ... and they explicitly made the same point. For some, it cost more to attend than they made in wages. This was the counselors talking ... employees of the very same organization. My point: pretty much everyone involved knows the system is at best deeply flawed and nonsensical.

- For what it's worth, the State Vocational Rehabilitation in my state made a policy change a few years ago in which placing a person in a sheltered workshop would not longer be considered a final, successful job "placement." This is important, because the number of successful placements is how everyone in Voc. Rehab. is judged. So there's no longer an incentive for counselors to shove all their "difficult" cases into sheltered workshops. They may place some people in sheltered workshops for short-term training, but only with the expectation of eventually moving out into a regular job.

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