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Bare minimum

Do sheltered workshops teach the disabled skills for the workplace or exploit them for cheap labor?

Photo: Steve Madden, License: N/A

Steve Madden

Given the decrease in state funding for disability services, adult day training operators say the income they derive from these contracts is increasingly necessary to keep them afloat. And when it comes to wages, operators argue that they would go bankrupt in a hurry if they had to pay their decidedly less productive workers the same wages as a normally abled person.

They also say it's beside the point: Their mission, after all, is to train disabled adults for the workforce by exposing them to an "environment of employment," not to give them a career. There are an estimated 349 adult day training centers in Florida, which serve 12,484 people; most also include services such as physical therapy and mental health services.

Yet many academics, advocates and activists argue that sheltered employment perpetuates discrimination against the disabled by keeping them hidden from the public eye and paying them sub-par wages. Recently, that message has intensified. The nation's largest self-advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities has called for an immediate moratorium on admissions to sheltered workshops; the Association for Persons in Supported Employment has called for the elimination of the sub-minimum wage by 2014, and in January of this year, the National Disability Rights Network released a report called "Segregated & Exploited: The Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work," which contains this call to action: "It is time to end segregated work, sheltered employment and sub-minimum wage. Now." All of the aforementioned groups argue that more emphasis should be shifted from sheltered employment in workshops to supported employment in the community, which other states have implemented to some success.

Interestingly enough, the people who run sheltered workshops often agree with their opponents in this regard - but they say there are several obstacles to changing the way the disabled are employed, such as stubborn parents, the workers' fear of losing Social Security and Medicaid benefits, and the prejudice and volatility of the outside world. "Quite frankly, if all of our clients worked at Home Depot, we would be done," says Tom Czopek, project manager at SMA Behavioral Healthcare. "And that would be fine. Just like a cardiac unit would be just fine to close their doors if nobody had heart attacks anymore … But that's not the reality. The reality is there are people who are in real need, in real bad ways."

Five days a week, in a large room of what was formerly the Callahan-Eckelson hospital in west Orlando, 30 people fold and stack white washcloths, drawing from the heaps of clean laundry dumped onto the tables at which they sit. At the front of the room sit 6-foot-tall plastic carts into which the washcloths are deposited; some 32,000 neatly stacked and folded cloths leave the facility every day and eventually make their way back to the restrooms of Walt Disney World's resort hotels.

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