The Fallacy of the “Choice Argument”: Most People in Sheltered Workshops Want a Job

The Fallacy of the “Choice Argument”: Most People in Sheltered Workshops Want a Job

Despite numerouse national and state policies promoting integrated employment, 76% of adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities are served in facility-based, segregated programs – usually work activity centers or sheltered workshops. Whenever advocates talk about closing a sheltered workshop so the people there can get real jobs, the argument of choice is raised. “But this is where they want to be…” You are taking away their right to chose…”

In a recent article published in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, authors Migliore, Mank, Grossi and Rogan look at whether or not this gap between policy and practice is in part due to the lack of interest of adults with intellectual disabilities and their families for employment outside facility-based programs.

The authors surveyed 210 adults with intellectual disabilities in 19 sheltered workshops, their respective families or caregivers, and staff members in these workshops. They found that 74% of adults with intellectual disabilities, 67% of families, and 66% of staff felt those they serve would prefer employment outside workshops, or at least consider it as an option. The majority of all groups believed that adults with intellectual disabilities can perform outside workshops if support is made available.

The study highlighted the fact that the preference for employment outside of workshops is not associated with the severity of the disability. So, who is restricting choice? Perhaps it is those who insist that employment service dollars be spent on an obsolete model.

Source: Migliore, A., Mank, D., Grossi, T., and Rogan, P. (2007). Integrated employment or sheltered workshops: Preferences of adults with intellectual disabilities, their families, and staff. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 5–19.



As the CEO of a sheltered workshop, I find most of your commentary to be very general in nature, and offers little in suggestions regarding ‘support’ in community employment. We employ 150 mentally disabled, many of whom make minimum wage. We train to increase productivity, ergo, wages.
We also operate as a business. However, the disabilities of our employees requires greater supervision than private industry, fixtures to assist them in doing their work and constant retraining. I would like to hear about the types of jobs that you feel are available. We operated a community placement program, too, and saw successes and failures. Most of the failures were from the environment in which they worked. Little understanding of their needs, not much help with their tasks, etc. You suggest that everyone should make at least minimum wage. The non-handicapped person making minimum wage may be able to perform more tasks unsupervised than the handicapped person who can only check membership cards at the athletic club. Who do you think the employer will choose?
While possibly capable of working in competitve employment, many disabled workers do not want the stress of those kinds of jobs. Many cannot function under that kind of stress and fail when they try. Where do they go then if sheltered employment is not available?
Perhaps you should offer some suggestions that are more specific, especially addressing the costs of running a business with employees with much lower skills. I would be interested to hear them.

Dale DiLeo

Thanks for your post. I, too, have been a CEO of a sheltered workshop in my past, so I don’t come by these beliefs haphazardly. Regarding your question about supports, I go into much more detail about the nature of support in several of my publications, especially in a book I co-authored with David Hagner called Working Together. I have also authored several curricula that discuss at length how to support people with various needs in employment. If anyone is really interested in how supported or customized employment works for people with disabilities, all the details you could ever want are available through countless books, manuals, conferences, and training events. I would recommend you contact, the Network on Employment for People with Disabilities.

I absolutely agree that many workers with disabilities require greater support (although not necessarily, supervision as you say) than what private industry typically provides. That is no surprise. But that is not a reason to segregate people in a training facility for most of their lives.

There are no “types of jobs” that are available specifically for people with disabilities, nor should there be. There are as many kinds of jobs as people and their skills and interests. The features of success are not the types of jobs, but the nature of the job match made and the supports negotiated, which is a very individualized process.

The failures you refer to I have experienced as well, and I believe you will find that is true both with workers with disabilities and those without. Generally, job failures are based on some of the environmental failures you mention, or perhaps the job was a poor match. Of course, that is why we call the job services offered “supported” employment.

Regarding minimum wage, my point is that when someone is not as productive as the expected minimum, which does indeed occur at times, then the answer should not be to reduce the workers wage below what society has set as a minimum standard, but to increase the support we provide or subsidize the employer to compensate.

Your comment mentions that many workers cannot function under the stress of a real job and do not want them. If that is the case, then someone has done them a disservice. And I don’t believe that statement is supported by the literature. Most people do indeed want jobs but are seldom listened to. Even the mental health community has learned that a good job is not stressful, but rather therapeutic in recovery.

Finally, I am not a fan of non-profit human service agencies running a business in order to provide jobs for the people they serve. A business should flow from the interest of an individual or a group of individuals and the economic need of a community, not an agency of human service staff. Self-employment is a valid choice for many people with disabilities, but that is far different from working at an agency business.

I appreciate the comments – that is the kind of open dialog we need in this field. Next time, I would like to see a name rather than “anonymous.” I will be happy to answer specific questions about how to negotiate a needed support. But my main point is perhaps a bit “general,” but unyielding: segregation to solve employment needs is wrong for any minority group. It hasn’t worked well up to now, and it will never work in the future. And most importantly, in the words of Martin Luther King, it is “morally wrong” and gives the segregated a “false sense of inferiority.”

Gabrielle M. Bolivar

What a wonderful forum. I too am the Executive Director of a nonprofit agency that does operate a sheltered workshop. However I am eager to start the process of transitioning all of our clients to supported employment jobs in the community. I can no longer support the idea that we will fail. After all, we have successful supported employment enclaves where individuals with disabilities receive on average at least $9 an hour (yes that is correct). With the right job, training and support everyone who wants to work can and is successful. I am interested in receiving as much information as possible on how to start this transition from the strategic planning to the implementation.

Thank you,


Candee Basford

While I didn’t need a study to tell me that people don’t want to be segregated in a sheltered workshop, I suppose some people – especially policymakers – need an expert opinion on things. And, so thanks to the researchers and thanks to you for bringing these ‘findings’ to light.

What puzzles me is what’s holding these structures – like sheltered workshops – so firmly in place. We just can’t seem to escape their grip. However, I don’t think it’s a lack of know – I think its a lack of want-to or will-to. The title of Peter Block’s book comes to mind about now – “The Answer to How is Yes.”

I recently posted two blog entries about sheltered workshop. You can read them at