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Sheltered workshops: A path to competitive employment for people with disabilities?

By Bryan Thompson | March 10, 2016

Sheltered workshops: A path to competitive employment for people with disabilities?
Photo by Bryan Thompson/KHI News Service James Quillen, a regional manager for the Occupational Center of Central Kansas (OCCK), displays an ice bag made by OCCK clients.

For people with developmental disabilities, finding a job can be especially difficult. Sheltered workshops were created to provide work for them in a setting protected from competition in the marketplace. But some advocates say this system too often exploits them as a source of low-wage labor for employers.

One of the first jobs Nick Whitehair did when he got out of high school was janitorial work at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene. He was part of a crew employed by the Occupational Center of Central Kansas (OCCK), a Salina-based organization that provides a range of employment services for people with developmental disabilities. Whitehair thinks he was paid minimum wage.

“I enjoyed it a lot, for what I was doing,” he said. “I enjoyed meeting the people that was down there, and the people that I worked with.”

For on-site jobs like that, OCCK often sends a non-disabled employee to supervise several workers with disabilities. The agency also operates a sheltered workshop, which is a large, open room where clients whose disabilities may be more extensive can learn basic skills.

On a recent afternoon at the sheltered workshop, some clients were sitting and chatting, while others assembled steering parts for riding lawnmowers. Another client was running papers through a shredder.

Dave Scanlan manages day, residential and employment services for OCCK in Salina and Abilene. He said pay rates vary in the sheltered workshop.

Photo by Bryan Thompson/KHI News Service A client assembles steering parts for riding lawnmowers in OCCK’s sheltered workshop.

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“Well, it ranges anything from a piece-rated wage to wages above minimum wage. It just depends on the contract, and the job, and what they’re doing,” Scanlan said.

A 2012 report by the National Disability Rights Network said 400,000 Americans with disabilities are working in sheltered workshops and earning an average of $175 a month — typically without benefits like health care.

Former special education teacher Judith Gross, now a child research specialist at the University of Kansas, said sheltered workshops keep people with disabilities in poverty and are morally indefensible.

James Quillen, a regional manager for OCCK in Concordia, rejects that argument. Quillen said OCCK uses sheltered workshops as a transitional service, where people can learn the skills they need to get competitive employment.

“We believe that once you have employment — real, competitive employment — that opens up so many opportunities for your life,” he said. “It helps you become more and more independent, which is our goal for people, is that they can become as independent as they want to be.”

Gross said while she doesn’t know about OCCK specifically, in general sheltered workshops are not a stepping stone to competitive employment.

“Overwhelmingly, research has borne out that that’s not typically what happens — that typically people who go into a sheltered workshop don’t transition out into competitive, integrated, community employment; that they aren’t learning transferable skills,” she said.

But Gross said when the right supports are in place, people with disabilities are not only able to have integrated, competitive employment, they tend to increase their skills beyond what friends and family thought possible.

“Other states have begun, or plan, to shut down their sheltered workshops, and they’ve found that that has increased their rates of employment,” she said. “For example, Vermont shut down their sheltered workshops in 2002, and now the employment rate for people with developmental disabilities there is twice the national average.”

Kansas was the first state to pass an “employment first” law, which Gross said requires that any person of working age who requests services first be offered integrated and competitive employment services. Gov. Sam Brownback signed the initial version of the bill in 2011.

“So if you have an organization that’s placing someone in a sheltered workshop to learn skills while they plan to transition to a supported, integrated, competitive employment job, they’re actually in violation of this employment first legislation,” she said. “There’s a lot of service providers in Kansas that still aren’t aware of that.”

“Other states have begun, or plan, to shut down their sheltered workshops, and they’ve found that that has increased their rates of employment.”

- Judith Gross, a child research specialist at the University of Kansas

Michael Donnelly, who oversees vocational rehabilitation programs for the Kansas Department for Children and Families, concedes that there is a segment of the population whose disabilities are so severe that the state hasn’t yet figured out how to successfully support them in jobs.

Donnelly agrees, however, that the number of Kansans in sheltered workshops is too high.

“People that we thought 20 years ago would not be able to work in a competitive, integrated environment today are. Technology has made a huge difference. The types of supports we’re able to provide folks today are different than what they were 20 years ago,” he said. “The largest majority of those people working in sheltered workshops could be working out in the community in a real job.”

Donnelly said state funding streams for these programs need to be redirected.

“And I do think OCCK is one of those that knows, and has for years tried to emphasize, the option for people to work in the community in real jobs for real wages. I think the challenge is that we have to move from it being an option to an expectation,” said Donnelly.

Meanwhile, all that workers like Nick Whitehair are asking for is a fair chance to show that the expectation is not misplaced.

“I know regular people can tell you people with disabilities can’t do regular stuff, and like, bull! Watch us. We can do it,” he said.