Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sheltered Workshops: A Good Thing Or A Bad Thing For People With Disabilities?

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.

Forward RISE Logo
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.


  1. Taking away an option that promotes and strengths poverty and historic roles of deviance is no vice.

  2. It does not have to be an either or proposition. Certainly there are many who are exploited in sheltered workshops, because given proper supports, training, and changes in societal attitudes, could not only earn at a minimum wage rate, but actually far exceed the minimum wage in competitive employment, self employment, or operating a business.
    As to those who may not have this capacity or interest, why do they have to be in a work environment at all? Why can't the dollars spent on sheltered workshops, be used for education, art, entertainment etc. For those who choose to be in so called sheltered workshops perhaps that too could be supported.
    We live in a capiltalist country,yet when it comes to many government programs, especially programs for people with disabilities, our government wants to be paternalistic and in control.
    Let the markets ( the people decide) I believe in time, hopefully sooner not later, the sheltered workshop system will crumble. The only real beneficiaries of sheltered workshops are the agencies that run them and the executives who reap hundreds of thousands in pay and benefits. The rest of paid staff benefits far less. Most if not all sheltered workshop participants are exploited.

    1. I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Tetto's statements and ideas.

    2. Frank
      where is your documentation to what you say?

      "Most if not all sheltered workshop participants are exploited"

      Did you do a survey? I'm curious how you came to this conclusion

    3. There is a broad spectrum of persons in sheltered workshops, my son is one of those persons. He is in need of constant supervision because he does not have the ability to sustain his own safety. He was born ritualistic which his needs and wants may contradict those of an employer - his temperament on any given day changes like the wind - just these things along would make him a less likely candidate for employment - I have placed in various job placement/training situations and he has failed - he has been given goals that we have reached and helped to give him a better quality of life - although it may not have worked out for you and your family - we are not one and the same - it does work for me and mine - should you desire or need another alternative - I would not stand in your way for your happiness - please do not feel the need to stand in the way of our happiness - what shoe fits for you may not be my size.

  3. This proposal is a tremendous step forward. Our understanding of how to help people get jobs that are meaningful with real wages has increased tremendously over the past 40 years, but states and providers too often opt for the easy way of sheltered workshop placement. I agree with forcing state agencies and providers to make a good faith effort first. If we can't eliminate all workshops then I would also recommend another reform of requiring third parties who do nothing but specialize in setting below minimum wages do the studies. There is too much of a conflict of interest and I think too many individuals with disabilities being ripped off because the sheltered workshops do their own studies, colored by what they think they can afford.

  4. I find it interesting yet understandable the amount of emotion going into this discussion without realizing the system is at fault. The comments of how sheltered workshops are making money is in my experience erroneous. Having operated programs such as this in the past traditionally the workshop itself lost money compared to the wages paid. We also were the 3rd leading provider in our state in placements of persons with disabilities into the competitive workforce. One of the issues is that the school systems do not prepare these individuals for the concept of working and many families are resistant to this concept for fear that the benefits will cease. The local VR system is overtaxed in trying to prepare these folks for the world of work. I am in full agreement that all persons with disabilities should be able to work if they choose to do so and should earn the same as their non disabled peers. However to continually slam this concept of sheltered work without a viable solution is not productive. Recently I have seen several programs change models from the sheltered workshop to the "meaningful day habilitation" model. No chance for work, not really meaningful and no chance of moving forward. Create a system that embraces the change and then the natural progression will be from sheltered employment to real employment.

  5. An excellent discussion with good points on all sides. We often say that people with disabilities face barriers and the removal of those barriers will help with them being able to live a higher quality of life. It has been my experience that sometimes parents are the barrier because they want to protect their child from the world's biases. Yet, those without disabilities deal with bias from many quarters in their life. I believe that the bar should be set to provide as much opportunity as an individual can handle. Inclusion means that we include everyone which is sometimes a large challenge. Yet, the benefits when this challenge is accepted are significant enough to justify the effort. When we expect we set the bar. Is there a way to guide people so that they have the freedom and information to make the choices that will affect their lives?

  6. sheltered workshops need to be closed goodwill industries of central north carolina runs a sheltered workshop 30 i worked for goodwill industries vocational rehabilitation referred me to goodwill my ex counselor judy lockhart who i met met the week my brother asked her how much will i make she said it depends on his productivity she wanted me to work at a sheltered workshop industrial services i said no on may 5th 1986 i go to work at goodwill industries for 34 days i start out by sorting mirror flex tile samples the assembling spindle adapters for 0.08 per piece i was required to assemble 500 spindle adapters in one hour i was at a meeting with some of the goodwill staff they said i get paid the by the piece known as piece rate pay i didn't have a intellectual or developmental disability they pay disabled/non disabled $1.00/hour i get paid sub minimum wage i quit after 34 days i met with my counselor on june 20th my last day she tells me i have to work 30 more days i said i'm not interested and take work adjustment class i said no about 2 weeks later she calls me and asked me if i'm going back to goodwill i told her 3 months later call me again asked me if i reconsidered returning to goodwill i told her no don't work for goodwill at all me and my co workers had to take clothes out of a trailer that were ruined they had mildew guess where they ended up going in the compactor going to the landfill goodwill industries is the worst place to work for they pennies per hour they don't care

  7. sheltered workshops don't teach jobs skills at all you're not allowed to retire there are some in their 70's and 80's still working in sheltered workshops doing menial tasks putting rubber bands even nuts and bolts in cardboard boxes it's time for sheltered workshops to be swept away in the dust bin of history the fair labor standards act of 1938 when first enacted a person could make 75% of the minimum wage in 1966 it was dropped to 50% of the minimum wage 20 years later in 1986 it was changed it's now pennies per hour how can it be justified in the 21st century to pay these kind of wages? it's wrong goodwill industries runs a sheltered workshop to goodwill industries shame on you for the way you treat the disabled/non disabled by paying.22/hour i didn't have a intellectual or developmental disability vocational rehabilitation worked with mental health to put me at industrial services of guilford one thing to say about sheltered workshops boring at goodwill industries after 34 days i quit it was dull boring job don't work for goodwill they are greedy

  8. goodwill industries in iowa city iowa done away with their wage exemption for the disabled they make $8.39/hour compared to other goodwills goodwill industries of omaha nebraska repackaged hair rollers made in china repackaged made in america some former goodwill employees told their story their stores $4 million dollars only $557,000 went for job training where did the other $3,443,000 go? to frank mcgree and others who worked for him i have a name for the ex c.e.o.of goodwill industries omaha frank simon legree mcgreed