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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

"Is Ashley going to get ahead working at Taco Bell or doing dishes? No, because she really can't use her arms," King says. "And they don't want her out there. Now, I don't know that for sure - but I can't get people jobs that can't talk and can't walk and need to be changed and need to be fed. Maybe in New York that works, where they have all the supports - it's number one in funding for people with developmental disabilities. But in Florida? The Southeast?" (Florida is currently among the bottom 5 percent of states in per-capita funding for those with developmental disabilities. Last fiscal year, it spent $72,960,348 to support adult day training centers across the state through the Medicaid waiver program.)

Others, like Tom Czopek of SMA, suggest that some disabled people - like those with psychiatric problems who don't take their medication regularly - are too volatile to last in jobs demanding relatively constant self-composure. "We've had some people that we've placed in jobs three, four, five times," he says.

Then, there are the hazards of the competitive workforce. Cindy Bentley tells of a friend who was blind and deaf and held a supported job folding pizza boxes at Pizza Hut for a decade and a half, until the recession hit and she was laid off. Ronda Bostock, the day program director at the Wings adult day training center in Casselberry, relays the story of a woman who held a similar job at Pizza Hut with the aid of a one-on-one job coach, to whom the disabled woman became attached. But when her job coach retired and was replaced by a different person, Bostock says, certain "behaviors" arose. "She started spitting in the boxes," she says. "Needless to say, she's no longer with them."

For some, the risks inherent in leaving the sheltered workshop for competitive employment are not worth the possibility of losing their federal and state benefits, such as Medicaid, which covers all of a disabled individual's medical expenses (or all but $500 monthly, depending on income), as well as the Medicaid waiver, which pays for disabled support services such as assisted living and adult day training. Today, nearly 30,000 Floridians with Medicaid waivers find themselves in possession of an increasingly valued asset - there are roughly 20,000 people on the waiting list for the waivers, and the state has not done a general enrollment in five years. There are also Social Security benefits to be considered; if a non-blind individual makes more than $1,000 per month, he or she is considered to be employed in "substantial gainful activity," and can be deemed ineligible for the program.

"Mom and Dad are behind the scenes, saying, ‘If you get a job, and lose your social security, and lose your health insurance, I'm gonna kill you,'" Czopek says.

Adult day training center managers say parents of disabled adults often prefer the sheltered-workshop setting because it frees up the most time for them to lead their own lives. While sheltered workshops typically mimic the schedule of the school day (and hence, the workday), jobs for the disabled adult in the competitive workforce are often part-time and feature shifts as short as a couple of hours (often requested by the disabled person in order to keep federal benefits). "If you're sitting at home, so is your mother - she's not working," King says. "And that's [often] the breadwinner for the family."

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