Workforce Investment Act
Currently, most students with disabilities are referred to sub-minimum wage jobs (often times substantially less than the $7.25 minimum wage rate) at workshops when they graduate from high school. There is new legislation under consideration in both Houses of Congress that would alter their pathway into the workforce. Under Section 511 of the Workforce Investment Act, people under 24 years of age could not be employed by workshops unless they have sought employment in other settings first. This legislation also requires that state vocational rehabilitation agencies provide “pre-employment services” to students at schools in their area.
There are many who are supportive of passing this legislation. They believe it will re-route youth into more fulfilling career paths who may have otherwise been automatically steered toward subminimum wage employment. Christopher Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, is quoted as saying that this proposal is an “important first step toward eliminating wage discrimination against people with disabilities.”
However, there are those who fear the passage of this legislation will only hurt the disability community. Parents and caregivers of individuals with severe cognitive and developmental disabilities feel that sheltered workshops are the only option for certain individuals because of the limitations their disability puts on them. By taking away the option of workshops, Congress is taking away these individuals’ ability to “have something to do”, be out in society, make friends and have a sense of self-worth.
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I’d be interested to see exactly how this would work. In my opinion, this proposal has great potential for getting people with disabilities into society in a very real way. At Forward RISE, we are committed to inclusion, and the passage of a proposal like this is a great step towards this goal. There is a significant segregation between the two communities of people with and people without disabilities and the only way to fix this is through real inclusion. State vocational rehab agencies can begin their work with students when they reach high school age so that they can prep for transition to life after school. This school in New Jersey has a great program for its students with developmental disabilities that offers real-life skills and industry certifications to help them land a job or to succeed in college.
When I was in high school, I remember taking a questionnaire that narrowed down my interests into possible career paths. There could be a modified version of this for people with disabilities. If a person only has one option – sheltered workshops – they will never learn if they have the potential to do something different.
Why is this so important? We have to consider the bar that we set for people with disabilities. Are we setting the bar too low by assuming that the best place for anybody with a disability is a sheltered workshop? I say yes! Too often, assumptions are made on people with disabilities. It is presumed that they are incapable of making decisions, keeping a schedule or following directions, let alone having higher-thinking qualities needed for employment. Destination Desserts changes the game by assuming that people with disabilities do have the ability to hold down a job outside of a sheltered workshop.
But we also have to realize that there are certain individuals for whom sheltered workshops would be the best environment. Taking away that option completely would devastate many individuals and families who rely on these places.
As with anything, change can be scary and difficult, especially when we are talking about a community with such a varied group of people. This proposal can be the beginning of the desegregation of disabled and able-bodied people. I can’t wait until the word “inclusion” is no longer a part of our conversation because at that point, it will just be.