Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sheltered Workshops: A Thing of the Past in Vermont

Workshops - Yay or Nay?

There is a great debate taking place on whether or not sheltered workshops should still be an option for people with disabilities who are out of school. Read my pros and cons on workshops here. One of the main arguments people have against closing down workshops is the fear that the individuals working there will have no place to go since businesses don’t tend to hire people with disabilities. The numbers seem to back that up since the unemployment rate of people with disabilities is twice that of people without disabilities, according to the Department of Labor (as of August 2014). You can find more informationon that here.
However, the state of Vermont is an example of contradiction to this argument. According to this article :

“The sheltered workshops that are still prevalent across much of the country were shut down in Vermont more than a decade ago. And now, the employment rate of people with developmental disabilities in the New England state is twice the national average.” (emphasis added)

Inclusion in play and work
How did Vermont do it?

The University of Vermont received a grant to build programs for integrated employment in the 1980’s. They worked with state disability agencies and its success over time was enough for Vermont to realize that sheltered workshops were not how the state wanted their citizens with disabilities to be treated. Workshops were phased out over a 4-year period: new entries into workshops were no longer allowed and their funding was incrementally cut.
Of course there were fears from the families who would be directly affected by this and rightly so. As parents, we want our children to be safe and secure, accepted by peers and part of something bigger than themselves. Could these desires be realized if workers with disabilities don’t have contact with others who are also disabled? Is there a job out there they could actually do and feel good about doing? Would society in general accept them?
It turns out, the answer is yes! In Vermont, about 80% of the people who used to be in workshops found employment in an integrated setting. The rest found other community-based services. According to the article, “In fiscal year 2013, the average wage for supported employees was $9.26, more than 50 cents above the state’s minimum wage and $2 above the federal minimum wage.” How incredible is that?!
And Vermont shows no signs of slowing down. It has increased its numbers of employed disabled individuals yearly. To continue their success rate, ongoing support is available in each county and doesn’t fade over time, which is common in most other states. There are also education programs with businesses that ease fears and answers questions for potential emplo

Looking to the future

Some argue that the reason Vermont was able to be so successful is because it’s a small state. But isn’t that a cop out? As a parent to a teenager whose CP severely impacts her, I worry about her future all the time. What will she do when she ages out of school? Today, I can’t picture a job where she can be independent because of the extremity of her physical disability but who knows where we’ll be in terms of technology and employability six years from now? My greatest hope is that all states work towards achieving the successful model Vermont has realized so that our community has as many options as it can.

Let’s not continue to set the bar so low for our people!

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