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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

The article concludes that the disability services system - comprised of both private nonprofits and government agencies - needs to align itself more closely with the desires of the people it serves, a sentiment echoed by Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. "If you start from the premise that not everybody can work, that employers won't take people into their work setting, that they won't pay decent wages, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy," Decker says. "If you don't start with the mindset that we can get the vast majority of people out there in some kind of meaningful, competitive work, then you never move."

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are 368,106 people nationwide earning subminimum wages in sheltered workshops of some kind; Decker, who lobbies for the disabled in Washington, wants to get that number under 100,000 within a decade. Part of the solution, he says, is for states to place additional emphasis - both financial and rhetorical - on "supported employment," which allows a disabled individual to have a job in the community through physical job aids, job coaches and/or specially "sculpted" positions based on an individual's abilities.

The advocates' strongest arguments for supported employment are the testimonials of the disabled. One example is Cindy Bentley, a woman who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and suffers from seizures, asthma, slurred speech and impaired motor skills as a result. Bentley cannot read or write. Though she says her adult day training center was certainly an improvement from the work environment at a Wisconsin institution where she was beaten and sexually assaulted, she found it tedious to place "$9.95" stickers onto countless Betty Crocker cookbooks. "I told them I was bored, but they weren't listening to me," she says. "So I just walked right out the door."

After nearly two decades of various service jobs, Bentley landed a position as an advocate for her counterparts at People First Wisconsin, a nonprofit that pushes for further integration of the disabled into society. Bentley says that upon starting her job, she needed the help of her job coach daily. Now he only comes in once a week to assist her with voice-to-text software that helps her respond to emails. "I like that I pay taxes, and I'm in with my community," she says. "That's what's important."

Indeed, it's not only the subminimum wage that angers opponents of sheltered workshops, but the fact that workers are in facilities segregated from the general workforce. It's for this reason that the largest advocacy organization comprised of the intellectually and developmentally disabled, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, not only opposes sheltered workshops, but also "enclaves" - areas at workplaces in which disabled individuals work separately from the rest of the employees. (Quest Inc. maintains an undisclosed number of enclaves in the Orlando area, such as a two-employee operation at Orlando Utilities Commission where workers handle salvaged materials, such as scrap metal, under the supervision of a Quest staffer.)

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