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Sheltered Workshops

P14777-18 President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act on the South Lawn of the White House. Sharing the dais with the President and he signs the Act are (standing left to right): Rev. Harold Wilkie of Clairmont, California; Sandra Parrino, National Council on Disability; (seated left to right): Evan Kemp, Chairman, Equal Opportunity Commission; and Justin Dart, Presidential Commission on Employment of People with Disabilities. Mrs. Bush and Vice President Quayle participate in the Ceremony. 26 July 1990 Photo credit: George Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Dan Barry’s recent New York Times article “The ‘Boys’ in the Bunkhouse” shed light on the deplorable use of segregated workshops, which keep developmentally disabled (DD) individuals in life-long jobs that often consist of little more than repetitive and labor-intensive tasks. Within the shocking exposé, one comment was easy to miss: that there is an “overreliance on segregated sheltered workshops in Rhode Island.” In some ways, the workshops are born out of good intentions — a desire to protect DD individuals from a world that they are considered unable to navigate independently. After all, sheltering people with developmental disabilities in special education and employment programs is widely supported: In Rhode Island, organizations like Birch Vocational School (BVS) and Training Thru Placement (TTP) have, for years, provided such services. But there is a darker side to such programs. By denying these individuals’ capacity for independence, society has alienated them, justifying their segregation with the projection of dependence.

On January 14, 2013, the US Justice Department began an investigation into a potential violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by Rhode Island. Title II outlines a variety of obligations that the state must fulfill towards disabled individuals: It denies states the right to refuse disabled individuals participation in services or programs, requires the elimination of unnecessary screening procedures and requires that all programs operate in ways that make them fully accessible to the disabled. Central to the Justice Department’s review is the requirement outlined in Title II that requires the state to provide “programs and services in an integrated setting, unless separate or different measures are necessary to ensure equal opportunity.”

A year after the beginning of the judicial investigation, the Justice Department reported that Rhode Island had failed “to comply with the ADA and the minimum steps that [the state] must take to meet its civil rights obligations under the law.” The report found that, despite Rhode Island’s leading role over the last two decades in closing segregated state institutions for DD individuals, the state has violated the rights of these individuals to live meaningful lives and be integrated into their communities. TTP and BVS — and programs like them — are the problem. The Justice Department defines a sheltered workshop as “a segregated facility that exclusively or primarily employs persons with disabilities.” They are “usually located in large institutional facilities” and provide employees with “little to no contact with non-disabled persons besides paid staff.”

By this definition, TTP, one of the largest work programs for DD individuals in the state, is a sheltered workshop based right here in Providence. By keeping the majority of its clients segregated — and performing menial tasks — for years on end, TTP failed to accomplish its mission of providing skills to disabled individuals in order to help them develop into “contributing and responsible members” of the community. BVS, a special program within Mount Pleasant High School for DD students between 14 and 21, serves as TTP’s educational counterpart. Both institutions kept disabled individuals in isolated communities, doing little to help them integrate into the state workforce and live independently. In doing so, they propagated the misconception of DD individuals as dependent on and burdensome to an integrated community. Rather than normalizing the lives of DD individuals, sheltered organizations like TTP and BVS create an entirely distinct environment for the containment of DD individuals.

Sheltered Workshop Prevalence in America Interactive Graphic by Emily Reif, Hassan Hamade, and Myles Gurule

Each state is color-coded based on the number of Section 14(c) (Fair Labor Standards Act) certificates that state has issued.These certificates authorize an employer to pay employees with disabilities at rates below minimum wage.

Click on a state to view the poverty rate and average wage for selected groups.

– Data from USDoL (2010)

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Between these two programs alone, the Justice Department found that TTP had unnecessarily segregated approximately 90 disabled individuals, and that BVS had placed “85 Birch students at serious risk of unnecessary segregation at TTP” because of what the Justice Department called a “direct pipeline” between these two institutions.BVS did not work to place its graduates into integrated settings or jobs. Rather, BVS graduates were funneled through the direct pipeline into TTP’s workforce without a full exploration of their integrated options: Even those students who were deemed fully capable of entering the general workforce were placed in TTP. Rather than treat a segregated labor house as a last option for those who needed extra training between graduation and integrated work, BVS’s alumni were kept separate. BVS and TTP represent an even larger overreliance on segregated workshops by Rhode Island. The Justice Department found that 80 percent people with developmental disabilities — 2,700 individuals total — were in state-sponsored, nonintegrated programs. Only 5 percent of individuals leaving secondary education institutions, like BVS, were able to avoid the workhouse system.

John Susa, chairman of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council and father of three adult sons with special needs, points out that the segregation of DD individuals goes further. Susa explained to Brown Political Review that Rhode Island is in the lower half, nationally, of educational integration. “If [the Judicial Department] had looked at the educational system, they would find schools in which disabled people are never interacting with nondisabled people. In public schools the interaction is minimal: art, physical education and lunch,” he said. This adds to the stigmatization of these individuals as incapable of independence and full community participation; nondisabled students rarely interact with, and therefore cannot learn to trust and respect, developmentally disabled students. As a result, the pipeline between vocational schools and sheltered workshops is strengthened. Because DD individuals are segregated throughout their educational experience, they may not have the opportunity to develop the skills required for integrated work or social settings. Consequently they may be sent to sheltered workshops or day programs to acquire these skills directly after graduation, rather than be allowed to seek integrated work. And the effect runs both ways: Segregation creates stigmatization, unintentionally biasing the system by limiting  exposure to people with developmental disabilities, thereby allowing negative conceptions to foster.

Additionally, placing DD individuals in sheltered workshops and day programs has denied them economic opportunity. Sheltered workshops can, under the Fair Labor Standards Act, legally pay a DD individual less than minimum wage for their work. If a DD individual were half as productive as a nondisabled individual, they could be compensated half of the minimum wage: In Rhode Island that would result in payment of $4 an hour. A less productive DD employee could get paid even less. While this law was originally passed to stimulate the employment of DD individuals, it rarely works that way. The laws’ effect has been simply to entrap DD individuals in segregated sentences at wage levels low enough as to be meaningless. The Justice Department found that wages averaged $2.21 for work that consists of little more than repetitive, rote tasks. At $1.57 an hour, TTP’s average pay was even lower than the state average, and one individual was found to be earning as little as 14 cents an hour. Because DD individuals in an integrated workforce earn on average approximately $8.92 an hour — 92 cents above Rhode Island’s minimum wage — it is easy to see why segregated workshops give DD employees a bad deal.

Many DD individuals are valuable workers and are talented in specific skill sets, which cannot be honed while they toil for prolonged periods in segregated workshops.  The judicial report found that 46.2 percent of individuals in work programs for the developmentally disabled had been there for 10 years or longer, and 34.2 percent of individuals had been there for 15 years or longer. One disabled man profiled in the report was acknowledged by staff members at a sheltered day-program to be a skilled bike mechanic, but was never given the opportunity to capitalize on his skills or achieve financial independence. Instead, he had been operating a heat-sealing machine in the workshop for 38 years.

Despite the unfortunate history of segregation, Susa doesn’t believe that the blame for segregated institutions like TTP can be pinned entirely on either the state or the organizations themselves, saying that “both sides of [the] coin were involved.” Blurring the lines between private misconduct and societal concern for the well-being of DD individuals, the fact remains, according to Susa, that “the organizations that have provided the segregation are licensed by the state and followed the rules that those licensing regulations lay out.” The perceived need for segregation did not originate in Rhode Island, and is certainly not unique to the state. As Susa explained, it is simply a symptom of the culture surrounding DD people in our society — one that sees them as dependent and unproductive. Organizations like TTP and BVS, then, are not necessarily run by malevolent individuals seeking to make a quick buck, but instead are the products of this culture. In fact, Susa believes that these organizations represent a “well meaning group of people who hear the message ‘this is a group of people that need to be sheltered, and we, the state, are willing to shelter them,’ and they come along and say ‘we’ll do it’ and take the contract.” It’s not that Susa doesn’t see a path towards change, but rather that he understands the status quo: “Would it have been good if these organizations had said you don’t need to do it that way; you can do it another way? Yes, but no one did that, because it’s easy to get good at the one thing, and it’s hard to change.”

Luckily, the culture of segregation may finally be coming to an end in Rhode Island. Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, an 80-year-old nation wide NGO that provides employment resources to those who face “barriers to employment” was brought in by the state of Rhode Island to take over the management of TTP and dismiss the organization’s former staff, explained Chris McMahon, President and CEO of Fedcap in an interview with Brown Political Review. The agreement reached by Rhode Island and the federal government requires that DD individuals be allowed to seek integrated jobs “in earnest” by the end of this March, and the state brought in Fedcap to accomplish that goal. Seeking jobs in earnest has meant a shift away from having individuals at TTP do rote manufacturing work, towards a complete devotion to “soft-skill training” — skills that will help DD individuals in the integrated workforce (e.g. communication and human interaction skills). It also means the active pursuit of integrated workforce jobs for TTP’s clients. McMahon says that the goal was to place all TTP clients in integrated, minimum wage or above, jobs. Those who were still out of a job at the end of March will no longer work at TTP’s workshop, which is scheduled to close for good. McMahon adds that Fedcap has found that the Rhode Island “business community has been very helpful and [has had] open arms in really taking an interest in helping people in the community.” The apparent willingness of Rhode Island’s private sector to move towards integration is concrete grounds for optimism.

In order to progress beyond these archaic institutions, businesses must acknowledge what McMahon and Susa already know: that DD individuals can be productive and independent. The Justice Department’s review has strengthened Rhode Island’s position as a national leader, forcing the state to come to terms with its discriminatory status quo and develop new plans for moving forward — such as the end of segregated workshops and the eventual closure of organizations like TTP. Despite this large stain on its record, Rhode Island has historically been forward-thinking in the advancement of civil rights for the developmentally disabled. It is still one of few states to have completely eliminated segregated state-operated institutions, as well as residential institutions, for DD individuals. The closure of segregated workshops is a well-overdue step on that same path.

This April, the Justice Department announced what they called a “landmark” agreement with the state, which will restore civil rights to over 3,000 Rhode Islanders. Once again, Rhode Island has begun acting a national leader on civil rights for DD individuals. The Justice Department called the agreement a roadmap for the 49 other states and a victory that pushes us towards civil rights for all 450,000 Americans with intellectual disabilities. The agreement gives Rhode Island ten years to redress the violations of the ADA. Upon the signing of the agreement, the United States Attorney for Rhode Island Peter Nerohna, echoed many of Susa’s sentiments. He acknowledged that the signing was an opportunity for Rhode Island “to recognize, finally, that we are better, stronger, when all of us…are interwoven into the fabric that is Rhode Island.”[i]

But the job is not yet done. Susa remains cautiously optimistic, but asserts that despite the judicial review, “Without a major social change, many of those individuals who are not going to be in the workshops are going to need to be doing something else.” Finding employment won’t be easy: Rhode Island has the highest unemployment rate in the country, which poses a significant obstacle, especially when combined with already entrenched structural disadvantages for the developmentally disabled. But the problem doesn’t fundamentally lie in unemployment rates. Rather, it is in the culture and stigmas surrounding disabled individuals on the national stage. While segregated workshops are in decline, the misconceptions surrounding disabled individuals must also be dispelled. Not only will a departure from the status quo lead to a more integrated workforce and to the restoration of rights to the disabled community, but it will also lead to a more tightly woven social fabric in which nondisabled and disabled individuals alike will both benefit from greater mutual understanding.