In a recent class I was facilitating, I again ran into the argument from someone that people with disabilities need sheltered workshops because they are not productive enough to be in the business world. Aside from the moral issue of segregating a whole class of people, let us address this stereotype of non-productiveness.

There is no doubt that some individuals with disabilities are slower in certain tasks, depending on the task and the disability. Of course this statement is also generally true of all people, depending on the task and the skill. The thing about productivity in a sheltered workshop is that it is largely confined to a limited scope of work, typically packaging, assembly, shipping, or some other rather repetitive task. If you happen to be slow on these type of tasks, or make too many mistakes, then you will be judged as not ready for prime time – a real job. The answer by the disability professional is typically then to provide training – year after year after year…

But this is inherently unfair. Productivity is largely related to the match of skill and task, but it is also related to motivation, the sense of belonging, wages, social relationships. self esteem, the assistance and training you get, and other factors.

Alberto might earn pennies a day for his slow pace assembling a business mailing, but at a health club where he welcomes customers and checks their membership cards, he might be at 100% for the employer. That is, with a little help, he does the job he is asked. He likes the work, the people, and it makes him feel good. He also has the supports he needs to succeed. Thus, he is motivated. And, he is good at what the employer needs.

This is productivity. A role for the disability professional, then, is not to pass judgment on who is productive to earn the right to a job, based on pretty invalid information. It is to figure out what the person needs to do and to have to be productive. It means finding the right job match and giving the right supports. Productivity isn’t fixed. Nor is the setting in which it is assessed.