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We have questions for a legislative subcommittee reviewing employment of the developmentally disabled

October 8, 2019 18 comments

A special legislative subcommittee’s review of barriers to employment of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) is long overdue, but it is unclear what direction the subcommittee will take on this important issue.

The “Workability Subcommittee” of the Massachusetts Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee has scheduled a public hearing on October 22 at 10:30 a.m. at the State House in Room B-1.

The hearing notice states that the Subcommittee is seeking to identify “solutions to promote opportunities for individuals with disabilities to participate and succeed in the workforce.”

Patty and Mark Garrity photo2

Patty Garrity and her brother Mark. After Mark’s sheltered workshop closed in 2016,  meaningful work activities came to an end for him. Mark is not capable of participating in a mainstream work environment, Patty says.

COFAR and our members plan to testify at the hearing. We haven’t been  consulted by the Subcommittee as part of its review, which began last spring and involved meetings with “disability advocates, employers, employees, and other stakeholders,” according to the hearing notice.

So on October 4, when we heard about the hearing, we posed questions in an email to the office of Representative Josh Cutler, chair of the Subcommittee and vice chair of the Children and Families Committee. Those questions were the following:

  • Does the Subcommittee recognize that there are some persons who do not have the capability to succeed in the mainstream workforce, or does the Subcommittee take the  position that all persons, no matter how profoundly intellectually disabled, can handle jobs in the mainstream workforce?
  • Is the Subcommittee also looking to promote work opportunities for individuals in their community-based day programs funded by the Department of Developmental Services?
  • Does the Subcommittee have data on the availability of mainstream workforce jobs for persons with I/DD? We have long been concerned that not nearly enough of those jobs exist even for those who are capable of doing them.
  • Is the Subcommittee aware that the Legislature has apparently never appropriated the level of funding sought by the Baker administration for training and other services to help prepare former sheltered workshop participants for mainstream work settings? If so, has the funding for that transition so far been adequate?
  • Does the Subcommittee support the continued payment of subminimum wages to persons with I/DD in order to enable them to get work opportunities either in mainstream or DDS settings?

In an email in response to us, Rep. Cutler declined to respond to our questions; but he did say they were “great questions” and that he would be interested in meeting with us. We are in the midst of scheduling a date for that meeting.

We have discussed employment issues involving people with I/DD in numerous blog posts and in legislative testimony since 2014 when the administration of then Governor Deval Patrick began closing sheltered workshops for persons with I/DD throughout the state.

The sheltered workshops were settings in which DDS clients did small assembly jobs and other piecework activities provided by area businesses. The participants usually received a nominal wage.

Many family members and guardians strongly supported the workshops; but the Patrick and then Baker administrations held to an ideology that the workshops “segregated” the participants from non-disabled workers, and that the participants would all be better off in mainstream, “integrated” job settings.

Here are some of our findings from our involvement with these issues over the past five years:

  • Starting in 2013, the Patrick administration worked closely with corporate DDS providers to close the sheltered workshops over the objections of the families of many of the participants. In doing so, the providers falsely claimed that the workshops did not allow for “community inclusion.” The providers also falsely claimed that the federal government was forcing all sheltered workshops to close in the state.
  • As of 2018, it was clear that the promise of the replacement of sheltered workshops in Massachusetts with mainstream integrated employment was not being realized. An unknown number of former sheltered workshop participants were being left without work of any kind in their DDS-funded day programs.
  • The position of Senator Elizabeth Warren and many others against the payment of subminimum wages to people with I/DD has made it even harder for those persons to find the kind of work they had previously enjoyed doing.

Patty Garrity is the sister of one of those former workshop participants who has been left without work opportunities. Her brother Mark is not able to work in a competitive, mainstream setting.

Garrity said she plans to testify at the October 22 Subcommittee hearing. “I want to explain that there are individuals like my brother Mark and his peers who are not minimum wage candidates,” she wrote in an email.  “There is still a huge void in Mark’s day and it is not going well…..going on 4 years now that I have been waiting for them to improve upon this and it is not happening.  Mark is happy to be with his peers, but all he is doing is shredding paper and he is bored.”

We hope the Subcommittee will pay close attention to the experience of Mark Garrity and others who have been left behind in the wake of the sheltered workshop closures.

Moreover we hope the Subcommittee does or will recognize that, as with so many other issues involving persons with I/DD, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to employment.

There are many people for whom the mainstream, competitive workforce is not suitable. Their choices and the choices of their families and guardians should be respected.

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