Last month, UCP Oregon/SW Washington, with the help of Disability Rights Oregon, filed a class action lawsuit challenging Oregon’s failure to provide supported employment services to more than 2,300 of its residents who are segregated in sheltered workshops. The suit says people are “stuck in long-term, dead-end facilities that offer virtually no interaction with non-disabled peers, that do not provide any real pathway to integrated employment and that provide compensation that is well below minimum wage.” 

Readers of this blog know that being stuck in a sheltered workshop is one of the core problems I believe face individuals with developmental disabilities today. One of the plaintiffs, Paula Lane, earned about 40 cents per hour in March, 2010, working on various benchwork tasks. Lane has repeatedly asked for a real job, according to the suit. She “cannot afford to participate in …many community activities.”

This is indeed a case to keep an eye on. It’s the first statewide class action suit against segregated work facilities. Sheltered workshops are not only obsolete, their cost-effectiveness is less than supported employment, and they have been found to actually hinder realizing job outcomes for people with disabilities. The case against continuing to segregate people with disabilities needlessly in day facilities is very strong, and includes not only research outcomes, but violations of civil rights and wasteful spending of government dollars.

Yet sheltered workshops are an entrenched part of the disability industrial complex. Over a half million people are attending them in the US, and states segregate more people every day. The real challenge should be to focus on “how” to change this system rather than “whether.”

Unfortunately, many people, families and professionals among them, believe that some people “need” to be in such a facility. I don’t agree, but I do understand where this perspective comes from. For example, one family posted in response to the lawsuit: “Yes the clients are largely segregated from non-disabled situations where they could not endure ‘normal’ work situations… clients are protected from terrible violations they might endure on the streets or at home.”

Parents will naturally protect a son or daughter’s perceived vulnerability. But we also need to understand that there is no evidence that workers with disabilities are more at risk than those in workshops, and funding facilities to provide needless “safety” comes at a cost – it has been proven to be ineffective for jobs and wages, and it is systematically preventing lots of people from living more meaningful lives. Changing a perception of the need for a segregated building (and thus “protection” from your own community!) is challenging. Workshops are not self-sustaining. They require ongoing tax dollars and the attendance of people with disabilities. Their existence requires people to be there. Money spent on facilities means less money spent on job development and job support for everyone.

Some people defend the segregated system because of the caring people who work at the facilities. For instance, this family noted: “…clients at the sheltered workshop have caring supervision and friendship of workshop staff. Our daughter views her supervisors as loved mentors.” Of course. This happens in some institutions as well. Many years ago I ran an agency with a workshop, and the staff were fabulous. That’s not the point. People are not placed in workshops to be near non-disabled staff mentors who are kind. It’s not that staff aren’t caring, it’s the environment into which we are putting both staff and people, and what we are requiring them to do, and what it actually keeps people with disabilities from achieving.

Moving people out of a system that is currently expanding will require thoughtful planning. Again, we should transition from “whether or not” and start a conversation about “how” right now. Here are six principles to start that discussion:

  1. Freeze new segregated workshop placements. We need to stop growing the problem. 
  2. Set up a “Workshop Firewall” rule to prevent re-entry into a sheltered facility once a person leaves. Too many people use the facility as a safety net, when actually it is a life trap. 
  3. Phase out, using a reasonable timeline, sub-minimum wages. Such wages are based on an outdated and inadequate idea of productivity and job customization. 
  4. Develop a capacity-building initiative in supported employment, both nationally and state-by-state. This would include better training, employment service staff professionalization, and an investment in school-to-work, career development services, and agency collaboration. 
  5. Launch marketing and education efforts to high-priority audiences such as families and employers.
  6. Set national standards requiring each state to collect and report clear service and outcome data on employment supports.   

This is just a beginning outline, but I think you see where I am going. States such as Vermont no longer fund sheltered workshops, so we know others can successfully move in this direction. So keep on eye on Oregon. A lawsuit in one state can start an avalanche across the US and Canada – and one that’s long overdue…