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Sheltered Workshops: A Path To Competitive Employment, Or A Gulag For People With Disabilities?

Bryan Thompson
Heartland Health Monitor

For people with developmental disabilities, finding a job can be difficult. Sheltered workshops were created to provide work for them in a setting protected from competition in the marketplace. But some advocates say this system too often traps workers, and exploits them as a source of low-wage labor for employers.

One of the first jobs Nick Whitehair did when he got out of high school was janitorial work at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene. He was part of a crew employed by the Occupational Center of Central Kansas, a Salina-based organization that provides a wide range of employment services for people with developmental disabilities.

Whitehair thinks he was paid minimum wage.

“I enjoyed it a lot, for what I was doing," he says. "I enjoyed meeting the people that was down there, and the people that I worked with.”

For onsite work like that, OCCK often sends a non-disabled employee to supervise several workers with disabilities. The agency also operates a sheltered workshop. It’s a large, open room where clients whose disabilities may be more extensive can learn basic skills. Some are just sitting and chatting, while others assemble steering parts for riding lawnmowers, or run papers through a shredder.

Dave Scanlan manages day, residential, and employment services for OCCK in Salina and Abilene. He says pay rates in the sheltered workshop vary.

”Well, it ranges anything from a piece-rated wage to wages above minimum wage. It just depends on the contract, and the job, and what they’re doing," Scanlan says.

A 2012 report by the National Disability Rights Network said 400,000 Americans with disabilities are stuck in sheltered workshops, and earning an average of only $175 a month—typically without benefits like health care.

Judith Gross, who specializes in child research at the University of Kansas, says sheltered workshops keep people with disabilities in poverty, and are morally indefensible.

Credit Bryan Thompson / Heartland Health Monitor
Heartland Health Monitor
OCCK Regional Manager James Quillen displays an ice bag made by OCCK clients.

James Quillen, a regional manager for OCCK in Concordia, rejects that argument. He says OCCK uses sheltered workshops as a transitional service, where people can learn the skills they need to get competitive employment.

“We believe that once you have employment—real, competitive employment—that opens up so many opportunities for your life," Quillen says. "It helps you become more and more independent, which is our goal for people, is that they can become as independent as they want to be, and as is possible.”

Gross says she doesn’t know about OCCK specifically, but in general sheltered workshops are not a stepping stone to competitive employment.

"Overwhelmingly, research has borne out that that’s not typically what happens—that typically people who go into a sheltered workshop don’t transition out into competitive, integrated, community employment; that they aren’t learning transferable skills," she says.

But Gross says when the right supports are in place, people are not only able to have integrated, competitive employment, but they tend to increase their skills beyond what friends and family thought possible.

“Other states have begun or plan to shut down their sheltered workshops, and they’ve found that that has increased their rates of employment," she says. "For example, Vermont shut down their sheltered workshops in 2002, and now the employment rate for people with developmental disabilities there is twice the national average.”

Michael Donnelly oversees vocational rehabilitation programs for the State of Kansas. He agrees that the number of Kansans in sheltered workshops is too high.

“The largest majority of those people working in sheltered workshops could be working out in the community in a real job," he says.

Donnelly says state funding streams for these programs need to be redirected.

“I do think OCCK is one of those that knows, and has for years tried to emphasize the option for people to work in the community in real jobs for real wages. I think the challenge is that we have to move from it being an option to an expectation," he says.

All workers like Nick Whitehair really want is a fair chance to show that that expectation is not misplaced.

“I know regular people can tell you people with disabilities can’t do regular stuff, and like, bull!" he says. "Watch us. We can do it.”