Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Justice Department Agreement On Sheltered Workshops

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Dan Barry, The New York Times - April 8, 2014
"The Justice Department on Tuesday announced a “landmark” agreement with the State of Rhode Island to free people with developmental disabilities from a decades-old system that kept them unjustly segregated in sheltered workshops and adult day programs, removed from the competitive workplace and the broader community."
"The settlement, which addresses the civil rights of about 3,250 Rhode Island residents, also provides a road map to compliance for the 49 other states, federal officials said. They estimated that across the country, 450,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities while away their days in essentially cloistered environments."
This is a great followup to the Obama Administration's about-face on the minimum wage increase. I hoped then that it would lead to a broader official assault on the whole practice of paying below minimum wage to certain disabled workers in sheltered workshops. Although the Justice Department agreement only applies to Rhode Island, it sets a strong precedent.

1. The fact that it is a Justice Department agreement in a civil rights case clearly indicates that this is a civil rights issue, not just a pragmatic policy issue. There are good policy and economic reasons to end the practice, but since change will have to be disruptive, putting it on civil rights grounds may make the process move faster.

2. The agreement applies to a whole state. That is important because states have the power to shape policies and practices for all the agencies they fund. Congress could repeal the laws that allow sheltered workshops and sub-minimum wage, and make the changes instantly for the whole country, but it's not likely to do so anytime soon. State-level change can be just as effective.

3. The agreement includes a sensible roadmap for change that spells out the viable alternatives to sub-minimum wage and sheltered, segregated employment. It starts a process. Watching the Rhode Island model play out will help other states refine the process so that the practices end with as little disruption as possible.

4. The agreement also encompasses self-contained, sheltered "Day Programs" that aren't about employment, which is really great news. This reinforces that segregation is wrong, regardless of the type or "severity" of the disability.

Traditionally, developmentally disabled people have been slotted into one of a continuum of service models, based on some assessment of how "severe" their disabilities are. Mildly disabled people might hope for mainstream jobs in mixed company, possibly with some extra support from a disability agency. Moderate to severely disabled people were presumed to be unable to function in "normal" jobs, and so were placed in sheltered workshops. People "too disabled" to do even sheltered workshop work go to "Day Programs" that traditionally were more like day care for adults.

This agreement basically breaks up these boxes, and requires states and disability agencies to make sure disabled people aren't segregated anymore from mainstream life, and that if they work, that they are paid at least minimum wage.

I was particularly struck by the situation the Justice Department found, where a high school based work preparation program “had become a feeder system” where the kids would graduate or age out, and just move over to a sheltered workshop. This is what happens when a community of teachers, counselors, and disability service providers all reinforce a deep-seated conviction that, “This is the best we can do.” Sometimes, insular systems like this reform from within, as people increasingly realize how out of date their methods are, as well as their assumptions. But, often it takes an outside force like the Justice Department to crack the egg.

Hopefully, this will crack the whole bunch of eggs, and the 49 other states will take the hint and start … or finish reforming their systems.

On a personal note …

For what it’s worth, I clearly remember going to a workshop on Supported Employment as an alternative to Sheltered Workshops back when I first started working at a CIL. That was about 20 years ago. So, these really aren’t new ideas.

Also ...

I think Dan Barry did a great job with this article. He got the language right and all the relevant questions were asked and answered.