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Gifts of the Sheltered Workshop

Guest post 

Note: This post was written and sent to us from Thomas Spellman and Dona Palmer of Delavan, WI.  Although all sheltered workshops were closed in Massachusetts as of 2016, we are still pushing for a resumption of work opportunities for clients of the Department of Developmental Services in this state.

As a result, we think Thomas Spellman’s and Dona Palmer’s points about sheltered workshops remain applicable to Massachusetts, just as they are applicable to work opportunities programs provided to developmentally disabled people across the country. 
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Introduction

Before we present the gifts of the “Sheltered Workshop,” let us take a step back and look at the big picture. What we see among Sheltered Workshop participants is a continuum, from mild to severe brain impairment.

While these individuals are all disabled, their NEEDS differ significantly.  A major contributing factor is behavior. While behavior is not a disability in and of itself, it can be a complicating factor in the employment of a disabled individual and in their life in general.

While the ability to “work” varies significantly among persons with brain impairment, behavioral issues and physical disability, those persons must do work that is meaningful to them. Whether it is just a smile or it is working for General Motors, the work must be meaningful to the person doing it.

As we all know, each person with a disability (or their guardian) has the right to choose where they “work” and where they live. This is a foundation of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

While the right of each person to choose is important, it is EQUALLY IMPORTANT that a variety of work experiences be available that address the varied needs of all of those individuals who are disabled. Sheltered Workshops MUST BE AVAILABLE to those with disability(ies), cognitive impairment, physical challenges and behavioral issues.

sheltered workshop photo

A sheltered workshop in New Jersey, which, unlike Massachusetts, has so far kept its sheltered workshops open

We know of the benefits of a Sheltered Workshop because our daughter Rosa has been working at VIP Service, a Sheltered Workshop in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, for fifteen years.

We use the term “Sheltered Workshop,” which in the past was accepted as a very good description of a safe place for people with disabilities to work. As we know, today it clearly is used by some in a derogatory manner, as in “You work at a Sheltered Workshop, and not in the community!! Poor you!”

Gifts of the Sheltered Workshop

First and foremost is the gift that the Sheltered Workshop exists!! (See note above about Massachusetts.) Without its existence, NONE of the rest of the Gifts WILL EVER BE REALIZED by the tens of thousands of disabled individuals who realize some or all of the Gifts every day!!!

Second is that there is WORK to do. While WORK is a human experience, and there is much written about WORK by others, we know from our own experience that WORK is fulfilling. Rosa has said that about the WORK that she has done at VIP.

While a person’s production rate may seem important, the more important issue is accuracy in order for WORK to be of economic value. Is the product that is being completed done exactly the way that it needs to be done? That is a challenge, and in some cases a major challenge to providing work to those who are disabled.

Third is the 1986 amendment to the Fair Labor Act of 1938, which provides for a “Special Minimum Wage” for persons with disabilities.

This is NOT a “Sub-minimum Wage. Sub-minimum Wage is a term that was coined by the National Disability Rights Network to negatively describe the “special minimum wage” as described by Section 14 (c)(A)(5) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 as amended. 

New terms such as prorated wages or commensurate wages are used, but it is the CONCEPT and not the name that is critical to the existence of Sheltered Workshops.

The logic underlying the “Special Minimum Wage” is simple and clear. If Rosa produced half what a full-time worker would produce, then she will receive half of the financial benefit for doing that specific job. It may need to be audited from time to time, BUT THERE IS NOTHING THE MATTER WITH the concept.

If we want significant meaningful WORK for people who have mild to moderate brain impairments and or physical impairments, then we MUST HAVE the Special Minimum Wage. If the Special Minimum Wage is ELIMINATED,  Rosa and tens of thousands of others whose disabilities limit their ability to work WILL HAVE NO WORK AT ALL.

Fourth is The VARIETY of JOBS that an individual can experience. We have only recently realized the importance of this. Rosa has learned over 100 jobs in the fifteen years that she has worked at VIP. Each of those jobs required her to trust Pam, her supervisor; to listen to Pam, to comprehend what Pam is saying, and when necessary ask Pam for help on how to do something.

Having been with Pam for 15 years, Rosa is proficient at each of those tasks. The hardest thing for her was asking for help. The VARIETY of job experiences has allowed her to grow to become more independent.

It needs to be noted that while some individuals may be able to do a two or three-step assembly job, they may not be able to collate a ten-page letter. Some may be able to put labels correctly on a bottle while others cannot. This variety of JOBS is very, very important to the growth and health of all those who work at a Sheltered Workshop.

Fifth is that besides the variety of jobs, there is the allowance to work at different speeds. It makes no difference in a Sheltered Workshop if an assembly job takes a minute or ten minutes. To know that what you are doing, and the speed that you are doing it, is OK is very important. It is one of those things that one might not see as a Gift, but surely it is.

Sixth is the Stability of the Sheltered Workshop. The schedule stays the same. The workers are the same. There is a place to go to WORK and be with FRIENDS. There is a stability of workers and supervisors. For Rosa and, we assume, many others, KNOWING what tomorrow will bring is VERY, VERY important in their lives. She “implodes” emotionally when the “activities” (as she calls them) of the day are not known.

For Parents and Guardians, KNOWING that the Sheltered Workshop WILL BE THERE WHEN THEY are NO LONGER CAPABLE OF caring for their loved one, is of even GREATER IMPORTANCE! It is to know that the Social Contract to take care of a son or daughter who is disabled WILL BE HONORED by the community of the next generation.

Seventh is Family. For many individuals with disabilities, their personal living situation can be disrupted by a change of ownership of the residential facility that they call home. The “home” can be too expensive or it can be too big or not big enough, and of course it can close. When an individual is forced to change households, they lose that “family,” and so the stability of the people at a Sheltered Workshop becomes their family. As I was preparing this, I realized that Rosa will grieve our deaths with her Sheltered Workshop family. 

Eighth is Safety.  Both physical and personal safety are priorities at Sheltered Workshops. That extra caution is reassuring to both the workers and their parents and/or their guardians.

Ninth is Friends and Community. What is special about the Sheltered Workshop is that with time, true friendships do develop with both the other workers as well as with the supervisors.

Fifteen years ago, Rosa bonded with Pam, a PAID STAFF member at VIP Services. Rosa has shared with Pam the births of Pam’s girls, hearing the baby stories, and now watching the girls show their goats at the County Fair.

And now Pam has accepted the role of guardian if both of us become unable to be Rosa’s guardian.  It is despicable to use the term PAID STAFF in a derogatory manner, which some disability rights individuals do. They imply that because someone is a paid staff member, there is not a real bond.

What is CRITICAL TO UNDERSTAND HERE is that our personal individual associations are part of what defines us as INDIVIDUAL HUMAN BEINGS. These relationships, in large part, will be with OTHERS much like ourselves. These relationships are our very essence. There must be an ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF THIS MOST BASIC HUMAN FACT.

Tenth is that transportation is made available. A few Sheltered Workshop participants may be able to drive, but the vast majority of workers at Sheltered Workshops need a ride to work. In those cities with bus service and a Sheltered Workshop on the bus line, a few more individuals are able to catch the bus to get to work, but there still are a significant number, who without affordable transportation being provided, will NOT BE ABLE TO WORK.

Eleventh is the Staff.  Yes, the staff of the Sheltered Workshop is a gift. Some disparagingly call them PAID STAFF,  but they are a group of highly trained individuals giving of themselves in many ways that would not be easy for many of us to deal with on a daily basis. To imply that these tens of thousands of staff members can be replaced in the for-profit workforce now being called “community integrated employment” is beyond absurd.

Twelfth is that Sheltered Workshops allow participants to take extended vacation time, in turn allowing parents who are retired to take longer vacations without endangering their son’s or daughter’s job when they return. Will a Walmart allow a 6-week vacation? That’s the amount of time our family spends in Florida in March and April of each year.

Thirteenth is that Sheltered Workshops are also a backup for those persons who are having a hard time at their public employment place of work. It may be for a few weeks or it may be a permanent change, but it is critical that the Workshops be there. The alternative to not being successful at Public Employment Work CANNOT BE SITTING AT HOME WATCHING TV!!

Thomas Spellman and Dona Palmer can be contacted at tmspell@execpc.com

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