Why Sheltered Workshops Do More Harm than Good

By , August 7, 2012

I’m an independent filmmaker in the process of directing a short documentary that aims to expose how sheltered workshops do more harm than good, and point the way to better alternatives. For those of you who don’t know, sheltered workshops are government or non-profit subsidized workplaces—often warehouses or factories—where significantly physically or mentally challenged persons work for low wages in order to acquire job skills and vocational experience.

The truth is that sheltered workshops are part of a long history in this country of segregating people with disabilities, where they have little or no interaction with their peers, are paid low wages, and are not being properly prepared for the real world of work.  So far, the focus of my film has been sheltered work in the state of Oregon, but over 6,000 workshops exist in all 50 states.

The history of the sheltered workshop stretches as far back as 1844, when Dorothea Dix famously begged state legislators to create state-funded mental hospitals for the significantly disabled population that had been “shut out [and] cut off from all healing influences.” Institutionalization famously failed, and we now associate mental institutions with unspeakable and inhumane treatment, segregation, and, at its worst in the 1920s, sterilization.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy (whose younger sister, Rosemary, lived in a mental institution) signed the Community Mental Health Act to reduce the number of people in mental hospitals in favor of community-based group homes, transitional work programs and at-home caretaking. Likewise, we also saw the passage of the Rehabilitation Act in 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, which were created to prevent segregation and provide for the equal status of those with disabilities. The goal of integration was closer than ever, unless you take into account the task of helping people with disabilities find jobs.

Sheltered workshops arose after the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in the 1930s, giving employers the right to pay workers with disabilities a wage “commensurate with their productivity.” This form of labor became known as “sheltered work,” because it claims to protect disabled individuals from the competition of the outside world by graciously allowing them to do what they can for a modest, sub-minimum wage salary.

As sheltered workshop owners see it, people with significant disabilities are being given the dignity of work. Employees are often called clients, and sheltered workshop owners are “vocational providers”—in other words suggesting that they help people with disabilities prepare for work in the outside world. The reality is that most never see the outside world of the competitive labor market and rarely learn vocational skills.

In the worst cases, companies that run segregated workshops take advantage of the sub-minimum wage clause to make a profit off of people with disabilities, who are often just as productive as their non-disabled counterparts. The term “sweatshop” comes to mind.

Over the last several years, the tide has begun to shift. Disability advocates have made it clear that sheltered workshops don’t help people with disabilities get real jobs; they’re a new form of the old mental institution. Advocacy groups are taking a stand, too.

Recently, an Oregon advocacy group, Disability Rights Oregon, filed and will likely win a class-action lawsuit against Oregon governor John Kitzhaber for subsidizing sheltered workshops. The lawsuit says the state has failed to help provide real vocational opportunities for people like 28-year-old Zavier Kinville, who has an intellectual disability and makes $5 an hour doing rote tasks in a warehouse when what he’d rather be doing, the lawsuit claims, is reading books to children. Other employees make as little as $2 an hour, or less, for the same work.

Instead of the one-size-fits-all approach of institutional programs, which proved so harmful in the past, finding jobs for people with significant disabilities needs to start with individual attention. In many cases, workplace integration can be achieved through programs like supported employment, which identifies individual job skills, links people with openings and provides them with on-site training and assistance.

Intellectually and developmentally disabled people show a marked improvement in their skills when they’ve been in diverse, mixed environments—not in segregated workshop settings. Disability Rights Oregon has already proven that integrated or supported employment services would be more effective and less expensive than workshop programs, which currently drain their state of about $50 million a year.

Making this documentary is a real challenge because people are reluctant to speak on the topic. The fight for justice can only be won when those who are affected by bad policy are willing to voice their own feelings and experiences. We know there’s a better way. If we decide not to make a stand, over a billion dollars a year will continue to flow to these workshops nationwide while hopes and dreams continue to be cut off.

Please contact me on my website at http://ittaiorr.weebly.com/contact.html if you’re interested in appearing in the documentary.

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Author: Ittai Orr

Ittai Orr is an independent documentary filmmaker, director and writer. He is a research assistant at Jigsaw Productions in New York City and is working on a documentary about sheltered workshops and people with disabilities. In 2010, he released an online documentary, Breaking the Silence: Gay Youth in an American Town, which was accepted to the Columbia Gorge International Film Festival.