By | April 17, 2014

Smiling womanMarie has a developmental disability. She is employed but not in a competitive workplace. Rather, Marie works in a “sheltered workshop,” a segregated workplace for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The sheltered workshop has not offered Marie any job training or support that will allow her to move to competitive employment, as she would like to do. Nor has anyone there asked her about her interests or goals. Rather, she was directed to the workshop straight from high school and has spent years there earning about $2 an hour, far below the minimum wage.

Under federal disability and rehabilitation laws, Marie should not be stuck in this situation. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—more commonly known as “IDEA”—and the Rehabilitation Act are supposed to effect a smooth transition from high school to targeted employment, with school officials and vocational rehabilitation agencies working together. And the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that services for people with disabilities—such as those of vocational rehabilitation agencies—be offered in the most integrated setting that is appropriate. Marie’s long tenure at the sheltered workshop falls far short of these goals.

While Marie is a fictional character for illustrative purposes, in reality, more than 400,000 people like her are working in sheltered workshops across the country. Many of them work there for years after being placed there directly from high school. This path has been called the “school-to-sheltered-workshop pipeline,” echoing the lament of other civil rights advocates about the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

But just this month, the U.S. Department of Justice struck a blow to the sheltered-workshop pipeline in Rhode Island. What began as a Fair Labor Standards Act investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor—the workshop in question sometimes paid its employees less than $1 an hour—turned into a Justice Department investigation into violations of the ADA and IDEA. The Justice Department found a clear pipeline from a local special education program to a sheltered workshop. It also found a broader statewide pattern of segregation: about 80 percent of people receiving such state services were placed in sheltered workshops and similar segregated programs, and only 5 percent of students with developmental disabilities moved from school into jobs in integrated settings.

This month’s agreement between the Justice Department and Rhode Island gives the state 10 years to take specific actions to fix its violations of the ADA and to end the school-to-sheltered-workshop pipeline and unwanted segregated employment for individuals with developmental disabilities. The agreement has been hailed as long-overdue progress and could serve as a nationwide model.

Coincidentally, the current issue of Clearinghouse Review: Journal of Poverty Law and Policy, which has an education law theme, contains an article that dives deeper into this phenomenon. Ronald M. Hager’s article, Stemming the School-to-Sheltered-Workshop Pipeline, looks at the failures of the rehabilitation system to assist students with developmental disabilities as they transition from high school to employment. He lays out in detail how schools and rehabilitation agencies can use a student’s individualized education program (IEP) to make a smooth, holistic transition from school to the world beyond. And he relates the interesting history of the case in Rhode Island that settled last week.

The forthcoming May-June issue of Clearinghouse Review will further explore the challenges facing individuals with disabilities and low income. In anticipation of the issue, the Shriver Center will host a webinar on May 7 looking at alternatives to guardianship for individuals with intellectual and mental health disabilities. Finding less-restrictive alternatives to guardianship, much like ending segregated sheltered workshops, is one more way advocates can work to preserve the autonomy of their clients with disabilities.


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