The 80-20 Rule and A Call to Freeze Referrals to Sheltered Work

The 80-20 Rule and A Call to Freeze Referrals to Sheltered Work

The Pareto Principle is a well known economic theory that can be applied to a lot of situations. It goes something like this: about 80% of effectiveness is driven by just 20% of our activity. This distribution has also been found to relate to how a small number of people control 80% of the wealth. Or in business, how 80% of your income comes from just 20% of your customers. (Interestingly, some theories also note how 80% of your life’s problems comes from just 20% of those people you know…)
Whatever the actual percentages per situation, the 80-20 rule is fascinating in what it implies – that often we are involved with things that seem related to our goals, but are really not very significant to achieving them, and in fact can become distractions. We thus confuse being busy with accomplishment. But the Pareto Principle says that unless you are getting the right things done, your ‘busyness’ is just an illusion of progress. It’s the difference between a shotgun that scatters its impact with laser surgery that focuses it where it needs to be.
Let’s apply this to the continuing problem of segregation of people with disabilities. If we consider how little progress we have made with employment rates of people with disabilities, and how few segregated facilities have closed, one should wonder why this is. After all, we have had multi-million dollar system change grants, along with multitudes of conferences, research studies, and training over the years. We have definitely been busy. We’ve had lots of meetings, white papers, and hand-wringing on employment rates.
One problem as I see it is that within all these initiatives, we have not focused on the few that might matter at a systems level. For example, we invest money and time and then teach and promote a myriad of new and creative employment strategies that are applied for far too few people. It’s great to know creative ways to find a vocation; we do need this kind of information. But it’s now been over 30 years since the dawn of supported employment; I think we have enough of what we need by now to get going. Sure, things will progress and we will learn better ways of doing things. But this is like ignoring a burning building to repair the front steps. It’s long past time to prioritize!
I would propose that if you want people to eventually be employed and not spend their days in a segregated facility, you need a basic and realistic policy starting place. That is, you have to stop letting people now entering the adult service system to even gain entry into sheltered workshop services. Simply stop the workshop referrals now, and you at least “freeze” the magnitude of a problem that every day grows larger. 
This is of course just a simplistic step, and no real comprehensive solution, but it is the initial necessary baseline for change. It will take years to completely phase out workshops, and there will be real political and social battles along the way. Like deinstitutionalization, people will complain about losing a service option, albeit one shown ineffective and potentially exploitive. But at least the problem won’t get worse than it already is and thus more difficult. And we won’t be unnecessarily sentencing young people to lifelong segregation needlessly while we spend precious resources on facilities and their related expenses.
Are there other steps within the Pareto Principle that apply? I think there are at least two more as starters. One would be an extension of the non-admission policy toward people who leave the workshop for employment. In other words, if they lose their job, they cannot return to the workshop. And still another would be the phasing out of sub-minimum wage. I will blog further about these in my coming posts and talk more about how to phase out facilities. 
Taken together, we might find that prioritizing our strategies for change might make more sense than continuing a shotgun approach of just promoting everything that seems a bit better than a workshop, then hoping for the best. I’m afraid the evidence has come in on that approach, and it hasn’t worked. 



I agree . . BUT . . the reality is, a LOT of families HAVE to work. Who will care for the person with a significant disability during the day? I think we should utilize YMCA’s, gyms, libraries, malls, etc. BUT, before we close day programs and send some families into worse poverty, leading to stress and possible abuse of the person with a disability, we have got to make sure they are getting assistance with community/home care. What’s the solution with $50.00/day Day Program rates vs $15-$20.00/hour personal care rates? Please design a “solution” before we through the most needy families into the streets . . .

James Ruckle

Sheltered workshops and families are not the only options. Once people are desegregated, there are hundreds of options, depending on our needs and interests. The response assumes that people with disabilities can’t function on our own, when we usually can. For example, there are sometimes Medicaid Waiver programs that pay for caregivers, including family members.

Bob Buckley

My son leaves school this year. He has severe autism and he needs supervision 24/7 (including holidays). While he likes to get out in the community, he does not like to be in the community for more than a few hours per day. He would like to spend most of his day focused on a task with unobtrusive supervision. He does not mind being with others who are similarly engaged … possibly with shared supervision.
We are trying to find things for him to do during the working day for two reasons … first, because he does not want to sit around at home all day, and second because I would like to continue working and not have to be his carer for all but (up to) 12 hours per week of “community access” that the ACT Government says it will fund. We are told that under social role valorisation principles and practice he would get 8 hours of “community access” instead of 12 hours. He would be isolated from his peers (recall that freedom of association is a basic human right) which means the service costs more.
There is no place for our son in open employment. There are no supported employment places in the ACT for students who finish school in 2011. We know of people with severe autism who left school over a decade ago and have never ever been offered employment of any form.
I recognise that many people with a disability and their communities benefit from desegregation. But it isn’t for everyone.
Unfortunately, there are people for whom desegregation practices deny them freedom of association and mean no opportunities at all. Their needs must also be met.


it’s alot easier to say stop referrals to the workcenters than to actually do it. i’d be interested in that solution. when we received $ to move people from agency to community based we worked off a 1:8 ratio and the initial staff person could handle a few more and then when we place another 4 or so we converted a staff to community. we did this for a number of years. now the issue the individuals remaining would require a 1:4 ratio or less and they are currently served in the workshop at a 1:20 ratio. coming up with the additional $ for a lower ratio is the challenge.