Report: Sheltered workshops “exploit” people with disabiliites

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The National Disability Rights Network released a new report April 3 detailing how federal funding priorities entice states to funnel people with disabilities into sheltered workshop programs that segregate them from the regular workforce.

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The report, titled “Beyond Segregated and Exploited,” is an update on a scathing report, released by NDRN in January 2011, that called for an end to subminimum wages and poor working conditions for people with disabilities.

“What we found was a system that does not provide truly meaningful employment opportunities for people with disabilities and in many instances exploits their disability for the financial gain of employers,” said NDRN executive director Curt Decker in the most recent report. “We found a system that traps these workers in endless “training” programs that prepare them for nothing and often leaves them impoverished. Worse, federal laws and programs as well as many provider organizations within the disability service system help facilitate this travesty.”

States receive money for sheltered workshops, separate work programs meant to provide employment for people with disabilities, from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Rehabilitative Services Administration. However, these programs are not balanced with funding for programs to assist individuals with transitioning into the workforce.

For example, in Ohio, where 97 percent of the state’s disability employment funding is directed toward sheltered workshop programs, more than 5,200 workers are earning an average of $1 an hour. As detailed in a series of articles by the Columbus Dispatch, these programs receive almost no oversight. Despite havimg the largest number of individuals employed in sheltered workshops nationwide, the state’s 40 percent poverty rate for people with disabilities is among the nation’s highest.

“Despite CMS’ and RSA’s expressed preference for integrated employment, the heavy flow of Medicaid dollars spent on prevocational services and RSA’s policy allowing workers to get those services in sheltered settings does not support the call for community-based employment,” the report states.

Federal law allows sheltered workshops to employ pay individuals less than the minimum wage under a Great Depression era law designed to bolster employment for people with disabilities.

The report provides an overview of a number of efforts by Protection & Advocacy organizations around the country to improve conditions and opportunities for people in sheltered workshops, including a class action lawsuit filed in January by Disability Rights Oregon which argues that Oregon’s system of sheltered workshops violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by unnecessarily segregating people with disabilities.

The report calls for an end to federal and state funding to sheltered workshops that segregate people with disabilities from the workforce, the creation of new tax incentives for employers to hire people with disabilities and increased labor protections and enforcement.