Wednesday, October 9, 2013

More About Sheltered Workshops

Sean Dobbin, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle - October 8, 2013

Lohr McKinstry, Plattsburgh Press-Republican - October 7, 2013

These two articles on New York State's plan to phase out funding of sheltered workshops bring up a couple of surprisingly (to me) valid concerns. At the same time, they don't give nearly enough explanation for why the state is implementing the policy.

First of all, if it's true the state is vague about what they'll consider an employment "success" for someone phased out of a sheltered workshop, then that's a problem. Without knowing any of the details being discussed, I would suggest something like an individual assessment, where "success" means integrated, non-sheltered employment of at least equivalent hours and / or take-home pay.

The second, even more potent concern is that maybe right now isn't the best time to make this change. Sheltered workshops should have been phased out when New York State was at or near full employment … during the later 1990s, or 2005 to 2008 … when a variety of jobs were easier to find, even in more impoverished places like Essex County.

Still, to read these articles, you'd think the whole thing was some sort of pointless bureaucratic "innovation" nobody really wants. That's not true. The "supported employment" model for people with significant developmental disabilities is the state of the art, and organizations that still operate sheltered workshops are behind the times. Sheltered workshops are textbook examples of social work models that were once radical and progressive, but which are now seen as antiquated in comparison with newer ideas. Sheltered workshops were always benevolent in intent, but were from a time that assumed the need for a degree of protectiveness and constant supervision that simply doesn't hold up today. Most people with developmental disabilities and their families want more than a pretend job in a closed, protected, minutely regulated environment, and know that it's possible … or would be in a more or less smoothly running economy.

So, part of me feels that the Essex County agency is right to doubt whether the open job market can do better for their workshop employees. But another part of me has seen two substantial periods of extended economic growth come and go, which people with developmental disabilities basically missed because it was always "too soon" to think of trying something better than sheltered workshops.