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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

It's a point that Mank agrees with, but he also indicates a change in the status quo is often a matter of political will. He points to the state of Washington, which created its own supported- employment program in 1997 and whose disabled residents are employed at nearly triple the rate of the national average of 20.6 percent. Then there's the state of Vermont, which saw its last sheltered workshop converted into a supported-employment center in early 2003.

"They're things that aren't natural in the community," Theresa Wood, former deputy commissioner at the Vermont Department of Disabilities, says about sheltered workshops. "You and I don't go to work, pony up to a table and put widgets in one box, and have someone else empty them at the at other end of the table. It didn't make any sense for us, from a common-sense perspective, and from a human perspective."

Besides its various contracts with area businesses, the Arc of Volusia earns money through some of its own entrepreneurial ventures. It collects bushels of office waste paper which it feeds into a shredder and later sells to a paper recycler (workers are paid per pound of shredded paper), bakes its own line of dog biscuits (which, interestingly, the Wings center in Casselberry also does), recycles electronics from old TV sets and computer monitors (the workers seek out gold, copper, titanium, plastic, glass and steel, in that order) and sells artwork and pastries. Through such entrepreneurial ventures, King says, the Arc of Volusia has reduced its dependency on state Medicaid waivers from more than 90 percent of its revenue five years ago to 57 percent last year.

But on this day, the Arc of Volusia's hulking German paper shredder - which Jim King calls the "Mercedes" of shredders - is unattended and silent. The large cardboard boxes in the corner of the workshop, overflowing with wires, metal and other electronic junk to be sifted through, remain untouched. In the room where the dog biscuits are made - replete with posters of puppies and paw-print stickers on the walls - there is no dough waiting to be rolled and cut. Instead, nearly everybody, in every work room, is assembling tangs to fulfill the Arc of Volusia's contract with the Thomas & Betts Corporation.

"We had a deadline," King explains.

It's scenarios like these that make sheltered-workshop opponents suspicious that these centers don't really want to help their highest-functioning clients to get out into the workforce. "You don't want to lose them, because they're your best workers, and that's how you get your contract done," says Curt Decker of the National Disability Rights Network. "So there's this disincentive, actually, to move the people who really could work in a competitive environment."

It's a contention that King strongly denies. "The reason people stay here is that their parents want them here," he says. "I know some people who have been here for 20 years, and their legal guardians will not let them go to work."

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