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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 vice president of SABE, Max Barrows, is an autistic African-American. "The disability rights movement is considered the last civil rights movement," he says. "In this generation, I have seen more discrimination toward individuals with disabilities than anybody of any ethnic background."

The call for integration of the disabled has also been long pushed by academics such as David Mank, director of the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community at Indiana University. Mank recalls a study conducted in the 1980s that looked at the entry-exit patterns of individuals from the job training programs which would later come to be known as adult day training centers. Based on the data, the study calculated that a severely disabled individual entering the traditional sheltered employment continuum at age 21 would not start a job in the competitive workforce until he or she was 77 years old. (The average length of stay at the Arc of Volusia, for instance, is just over 12 years; the longest-serving client has been there 35 years.) "It's not a training program," Mank says. "It's a place to go during the day."

Mank argues that the repetitive tasks assigned at adult day training centers do little to actually prepare disabled individuals for competitive employment. "People with [intellectual] disabilities are unlikely to generalize skills, so learning one kind of work in one environment does not predict that you are going to do another kind of work in another environment well," Mank says. "The answer is - let's train you where you want to do the work. Let's not send you to a workshop under this guise of ‘You're getting training, and someday you'll get out,' because every month you're there reduces the likelihood that you're ever going to get out."

There is one thing that should be noted: Many adult day training centers that operate sheltered workshops also run supported-employment programs which help the disabled work among their more able peers in the community. The Arc of Volusia is assisting 120 people to this end, SMA Behavioral Healthcare counts around 240 in supported employment and Quest Inc. says it is helping 550 people in integrated jobs. Just like the opponents of sheltered workshops, every center the Orlando Weekly spoke to for this story agreed that full integration in the community through supported employment - or even better, unsupported employment - was the ultimate goal of vocational training. Where their viewpoints diverge, though, is at the question of proportion: while advocacy groups like the Association for Persons in Supported Employment argue that there is a job for everybody outside of the sheltered-workshop environment, regardless of the severity of the disability, adult day training center operators say that getting every disabled person out into the workforce would require an effort beyond their financial means.

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