I’d love to see sheltered workshops banned, phased out, or just plain abandoned. I think they might have been a good idea once, but at this point their weaknesses are plain to see, and they are based on ideas about disability that are no longer valid, if they ever were.
It looks like a renewed version of the federal laws shaping vocational services for people with disabilities is going to be signed soon, and it will include some steps to curb and discourage use of sheltered workshops. It doesn’t ban them, nor does it end the practice of paying below minimum wage. My simple, only moderately informed take is pretty much in line with that of the National Council on Independent Living … that it’s better than nothing.
I also have another thought on sheltered workshop that doesn’t seem to be talked about much. What bothers me most about sheltered workshops is that they are dishonest; they systematically lie to the people they are intended to serve. The tell and / or imply to the people with disabilities who “work” in them that they are “workers” doing a “job”, when in reality, they would be better described as students, clients, or even patients receiving services, or in the worst cases, warehoused and monitored. So, if Congress isn’t ready to ban sheltered workshops yet, I have another idea:
Stop calling what disabled people do in sheltered workshops “jobs”. Call them day programs. Call it work readiness training. Just don’t lie to disabled people and tell them they have a job when it really isn’t one.
If, on the other hand, these organizations want to contend that they are real workplaces … that the disabled people are employees doing jobs, then they should pay them minimum wage or above. The workers should be subject to the same responsibilities and rights that workers have in other non-sheltered jobs. They should be treated like employees, not students, clients, or patients. And if you’re going to do that, why not just ditch the whole “sheltered” part and provide the extra coaching and closer supervision they need individually, in real workplaces. Oh, wait, that’s already being done. It’s called Job Coaching or Supported Employment, and lots of organizations that used to run sheltered workshops gave that up and shifted to Supported Employment. So it can be done.
But again, if we’re not prepared to make that shift, let’s at least be honest about what they are really doing, which, at best, is providing training and structured day activities.
I might have different priorities if I actually worked in a sheltered workshop, but as a disabled person who has met and spoken to a fair number of sheltered workshop “workers”, what bothers me most is implication that sheltered workshop workers are too “simple” to know the difference, or mind. News flash, most of them know what they’re doing isn’t normal, and they do mind.