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Gifts of the Sheltered Workshop

October 14, 2018 Leave a comment

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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Confusion reigns over employment of the developmentally disabled in Massachusetts

August 16, 2018 Leave a comment

When it comes to the crucial issue of employment of people with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts, the policies of both the federal government and the Baker administration appear to be unclear, confusing, and to contain a number of contradictions.

Yet, neither the Baker administration nor the Massachusetts Legislature, in particular, seem to be showing much interest in clearing things up.

Consider these facts:

  • Although the Patrick and Baker administrations stated that they were closing all sheltered workshops in Massachusetts in order to place developmentally disabled people in so-called “integrated” or mainstream work, those mainstream jobs have proven to be difficult for many, if not most, of those people to find.
  • An unknown number of former sheltered workshop participants, some of whom do not want mainstream work,  have been left without work of any kind in their Department of Developmental Services-funded day programs.
  • It is unclear what work arrangements are considered by both the federal and state governments to be legal. In one case, DDS has resorted to a creative, if jerry-rigged arrangement under which a developmentally disabled man has been placed on the staff of his day program so that he can continue to do piecework there in compliance with federal rules.
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Barbara Govoni (right) with state Senator Joan Lovely, Senate chair of the Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities Committee, this week. The Committee did not approve a bill Govoni proposed that would ensure work opportunities for  her son and other developmentally disabled persons. But Lovely says she wants to work with Govoni on the issue.

Let’s look at each of these issues a little more closely:

Integrated work is apparently still unavailable for many who want it in the mainstream workforce

In 2014, the administration of then Governor Deval Patrick began closing sheltered workshops that provided developmentally disabled persons with piecework activities because those facilities supposedly segregated those persons from their non-disabled peers and paid them less than minimum wage. The Baker administration followed that same policy, ultimately closing all remaining workshops as of the fall of 2016.

The plan of both administrations was to provide training to those former workshop participants and place them in mainstream workforce settings along with supports that would help them to function in those settings.

We expressed concerns at the time, however, that the workshop closure policy was being pursued without knowing, among other things, whether sufficient jobs existed in the private sector for all of those former workshop participants and others who want jobs.  We also expressed concern that the Legislature wasn’t following through with funding needed for training.

Since 2014, data appear to have borne out our concerns.

DDS data provided to us last month show that despite the workshop closures, smaller and smaller numbers of people have actually entered the integrated or mainstream workforce in Massachusetts since Fiscal 2016.  During that fiscal year, a high of 509 clients in the DDS system newly started working in mainstream jobs.  That number dropped to 127 clients entering integrated employment during Fiscal 2017 and a net increase of 98 clients during Fiscal 2018.

We are assuming that demand for these mainstream jobs remains high, possibly in the thousands. That there was a net increase of less than 100 developmentally disabled persons in integrated employment in Fiscal 2018 appears to show that the administration has been unable to find jobs for people who want them.

Fiscal years 2015 and 2016 were apparently the years in which most of the population of the sheltered workshops left those programs and in which most of the increases in integrated employment programs took place. The problem is that the numbers of clients entering integrated employment in those years were much smaller than the numbers entering DDS-funded day programs.

Overall, the DDS day program population increased by 81% from Fiscal 2014 through 2018 while integrated job placements increased by only 19%. The chart below reflects this trend and illustrates the fact that the total day program population in the DDS system has caught up with and even surpassed the total number of departmental clients in integrated employment since Fiscal 2014.

Chart on DDS integrated employment vs. day program population

Source: DDS

When we asked DDS for any records indicating whether the Department is having a problem providing suitable work opportunities for those who want them, DDS referred us to two policy documents dated 2010 and 2013. But those documents obviously do not provide any information about the situation today.

One of those policy documents is the Department’s 2010 “Employment First” policy statement, which called for “integrated employment as a goal for all” DDS clients. The policy statement also called for a “consistent message” and an “infrastructure including prioritizing and directing of resources, that supports this effort.” (my emphasis)

To date, however, neither a consistent message nor an adequate infrastructure appear to exist to support that goal of universal integrated employment.

The DDS’s 2013 document, titled “Blueprint for Success,” stated that it was the Department’s goal to close all remaining sheltered workshops as of June 30, 2015.  (The last workshops were closed a little more than a year later.)

The title page of the Blueprint states that the document was prepared by DDS and by the Massachusetts Association for Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP) and the Arc of Massachusetts.  Both the ADDP and the Arc are largely supported by DDS-funded providers, which have benefited from higher DDS funding for the day programs to which most of the former sheltered workshop participants have been transferred.

Some DDS Employment First website links don’t work

In response to our request for documents and information, DDS also referred us last month to its Employment First website.  It isn’t apparent, however, that the website contains any information that indicates whether or not it is difficult for developmentally disabled persons to find mainstream employment.

In one case in which I clicked on the website and then went to the “Career Planning” section under the “Resource Library,” a link to a “Career Planning Guide” took me to an error page. Another link to a “Guide to Person-Centered Planning for Job Seekers” took me to a page with generic advice on seeking employment, but no information on current job prospects for people with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts.

Under a link called “Program Development and Management,” I clicked on another link labeled “Ensuring Excellence in Community Based Day Supports,” and got another error page message.

Barbara Govoni and Patty Garrity, two of the more active family members of former sheltered workshop residents, both said they had never been referred to the website by DDS.

Legislative committee kills work opportunities bill

Last year, state Representative Brian Ashe of Longmeadow filed a work opportunity bill (H. 4541) at the request of Govoni, the mother of Danny Morin, a former sheltered workshop participant. The bill would have required optional work activities in DDS-funded day programs for up to four hours a day.

Govoni is concerned that Danny has been provided with few activities that are meaningful to him after his workshop closed in 2016, and misses the steady work that the workshop provided. She terms this lack of available work opportunities for Danny and others a human rights issue.

But Govoni’s bill was referred to the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee, which effectively killed the measure in June by sending it to a study. Earlier this week, Govoni and I met with state Senator Joan Lovely, the committee’s Senate chair, to discuss the bill among other DDS issues.

Lovely said the employment bill was filed late in the two-year legislative session. She noted there was little time to analyze the implications of the bill, so the committee decided to send it to a study. The problem with that is that no one in the Legislature actually does such studies. Sending a bill to a study is a euphemistic expression used for killing a bill.

But Lovely said the committee is concerned about the work opportunity issue, and said the committee has been in touch with DDS about it. One proposal being discussed is to hire an ombudsman in the Department who would help individuals and families locate existing day programs that offer work opportunities.

Another proposal under consideration is to establish new work opportunities programs in existing day programs without making such work opportunities a legislative requirement of DDS.

But it isn’t clear that DDS really is working to establish those programs or whether the Department even considers work activities in day programs to be legal.

A staff member for Representative Ashe said she was told by DDS officials that the Department is essentially hamstrung by federal rules that prevent DDS day programs from offering any work activities because such activities can only be offered in “integrated” settings.

DDS tries creative approach to comply with federal requirements

Despite that, we have heard of recent cases in which arrangements have been made to provide work activities in DDS day programs. Patty Garrity’s bother, Mark, is one of those cases.

As we reported last year, Mark, like Danny Morin, was bored in his day program after it had ceased operating as a sheltered workshop. He wasn’t interested in the classes on painting, cooking, or money management that had replaced the piecework he had enjoyed doing.

In March of 2017, Mark’s day program found paper shredding work for him that DDS determined was in compliance with federal rules.

Ashe’s aide queried DDS about Mark’s case and was told that in order to allow Mark to do the paper shredding work under the new federal rules, the provider agency running his day program has actually placed him on its staff and is paying him minimum wage. As a result, Mark is now considered to be working in an integrated setting.

Ashe’s aide told us that Mark’s work arrangement is considered a “unique circumstance.”

Federal rules regarding integrated employment are unclear

The problem with unique arrangements such as Mark’s, however, is that they don’t necessarily solve problems involving larger groups of people. And it may even be questionable whether Mark’s arrangement was actually necessary.

Despite what DDS told Ashe’s legislative aide, it does not appear clear that the federal rules strictly forbid work activities in day programs such as Mark’s.

In an informational bulletin issued in 2011, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) stated that federal Medicaid funding will not cover “vocational services delivered in facility based or sheltered work settings, where individuals are supervised for the primary purpose of producing goods or performing services.”

That would appear to preclude at least some work activities in DDS day programs. But it seems possible that what the CMS bulletin refers to as “pre-vocational services” do allow for at least certain work opportunities in those settings, although the guidance, as usual, is vague. It also isn’t clear which types of work activities DDS recognizes as pre-vocational services and which it considers vocational.

The CMS bulletin offers a rather vague and clunky definition of pre-vocational services as:

…services that provide learning and work experiences, including volunteer work, where the individual can develop general, non-job-task-specific strengths and skills that contribute to employability in paid employment in integrated community settings. (My emphasis).

The bulletin does state that persons doing pre-vocational activities can be paid for those activities “in accordance with applicable Federal laws and regulations.”

The bulletin implies that these pre-vocational work opportunities can be provided in “fixed-site facilities,” which we think would include DDS day programs, although this again is not clear. Also, the bulletin states that these work opportunities must occur “over a defined period of time,” which implies that the individuals are ultimately expected, as the bulletin says, to be placed in permanent integrated employment. Once again, the “defined period of time” isn’t defined!

It’s also unclear to us what the CMS bulletin means in stating (above) that while pre-vocational services can include “work experiences,” they must provide the person with “non-job-task-specific strengths and skills.” Does that mean that the individual can do work but can’t do specific tasks?

It seems that the paper shredding activity that Mark Garrity is doing could be considered a “work experience.”

As a result, it seems possible that when Govoni’s bill is refiled, as we hope it will be in the next legislative session in January, the bill should specify that all DDS day programs be required to offer pre-vocational activities to anyone who requests that.

When Govoni and I met with Senator Lovely, Lovely agreed that the current rules governing work opportunities are confusing and need to be clarified.

The federal and state models are ‘one size fits all’

 The CMS bulletin recognizes that work is vitally important to people with developmental disabilities in the same way it is important to non-disabled persons. As the bulletin notes:

Work is a fundamental part of adult life for people with and without disabilities. It provides a sense of purpose, shaping who we are and how we fit into our community.

Yet, after that acknowledgement, the CMS bulletin appears willing to ensure that fundamental part of life only for those who agree to work in the mainstream workforce. The bulletin states:

…Because (work) is so essential to people’s economic self sufficiency, as well as self esteem and well being, people with disabilities and older adults with chronic conditions who want to work should be provided the opportunity and support to work competitively within the general workforce in their pursuit of health, wealth and happiness.

Neither the federal government nor the Baker administration in Massachusetts appear to recognize that at least some persons with the most profound levels of disability are not able to participate in the mainstream workforce.

The CMS bulletin states the following: 

All individuals, regardless of disability and age, can work – and work optimally with opportunity, training, and support that build on each person’s strengths and interests. Individually tailored and preference based job development, training, and support should recognize each person’s employability and potential contributions to the labor market.`(my emphasis)

The DDS Employment First policy referred to above appears to go even further in that regard, stating that:

It has now been clearly demonstrated that individuals who were previously considered unemployable in integrated community settings can work successfully. Even for those individuals with the most significant level of disability, through careful job matching and support design, employment has been shown to be a viable option. (my emphasis)

These statements are unsupported by the evidence. That is probably why neither statement provides any evidence to support its claims.

Recently, however, the federal government proposed changes at least to rules that prevent developmentally disabled persons from working for less than the minimum wage.

We hope to work with the Baker administration and the Legislature to find ways to penetrate and clear up this dense thicket of confusion and contradictions that has grown up in the past several years over the vital issue of work for the developmentally disabled.

We hope Govoni’s work opportunity bill is enacted in the next legislative session. In the meantime, legislators, advocates, and policymakers need to get together to clarify and agree on what can and should be done.

Questions remain as key disabilities committee kills work opportunities bill

July 13, 2018 4 comments

The Legislature’s family and disabilities rights committee has rejected H. 4541, a bill intended to ensure that developmentally disabled individuals get work opportunities in their state-funded day programs.

A staff member of the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee said the committee understands many people cannot find those work opportunities and is therefore discussing other possible ways of providing for them. But details regarding the policies being considered by the Children and Families Committee are sketchy, and the committee hasn’t yet responded to written questions about those ideas.

Barbara Govoni, the mother of a developmentally disabled man, had pushed for months for passage of H. 4541, which would have established optional work activities in DDS-funded day programs for up to four hours a day.

Many people in community-based day programs funded by the Department of Developmental Services have not been able to find such work since all sheltered workshops were closed in Massachusetts in 2016.

H. 4541 had been referred to the Children and Families Committee in May, and the committee effectively killed the measure last month by sending it to a study. With formal business in the current two-year legislative session ending on July 31, any similar legislation will have to be re-filed next January and go through the legislative process all over again.

It isn’t clear what the committee’s objections were to H. 4541. We’ve noted that some committee members appeared to have some misconceptions about the bill, including the idea that it would bring sheltered workshops back to the state.

In fact, the bill would have simply provided work activities for individuals who continued to desire those activities in their day programs, and who either could not or did not want to work in “integrated” or mainstream work settings. As we have reported, many of these people miss the work they used to do in their sheltered workshops, and are unable to relate to most day program activities that replaced that work.

At the same time, it appears that some DDS-funded day programs are, in fact, continuing to offer work activities to some residents. It’s not clear how many such programs currently exist.

A legislative aide to Representative Kay Khan, House chair of the Children and Families Committee, said earlier this week that the committee had been in touch with the Department of Developmental Services about the work opportunity issue, and that one proposal discussed was to hire an ombudsman in the Department who would help individuals and families locate existing day programs that offer work opportunities.

Funding remains a question

Another proposal under consideration by the Children and Families Committee and DDS is to establish new work opportunities programs at additional day programs without making such work opportunities a legislative requirement of DDS.

No details are yet available, however, on the scope of the Children and Families Committee’s or DDS’s proposals. Also unknown is how funding would be appropriated for an expansion of existing work opportunities programs, and what the amount of that funding might be.

The Legislature, unfortunately, has previously shown a reluctance to fund job training and other programs as part of the effort to replace sheltered workshop programs with “integrated” or mainstream work opportunities for DDS clients.

The administration of then Governor Deval Patrick and the Legislature had set up a DDS line item in Fiscal 2015 to fund job training and other programs to help transfer clients from sheltered workshops into mainstream employment. That line item was initially funded with $1 million and was raised to $3 million the following year.

For Fiscal 2017, current Governor Charlie Baker, with the support of the DDS corporate providers, had proposed boosting the job development line item to $7.6 million; but the Legislature wouldn’t agree to the higher funding.

As of Fiscal 2018, the job development line item was eliminated and all funding for those efforts was transferred to the overall DDS Community Based Day and Work line item. It would seem the case needs to be made that additional funding is now needed for the day and work line item to fill the gap in work opportunity programs.

The solution needs to be comprehensive

Robin Frechette, an aide to Representative Brian Ashe, who filed H. 4541 on Govoni’s behalf, said she believes the Children and Families Committee co-chairs and other committee members “understand there is a gap in services to a particular group of individuals who are not able to work out in the community, and it needs to be addressed.”

But Frechette expressed a concern that simply having an ombudsman direct individuals whose day programs don’t offer work opportunities to different day programs that do offer those opportunities could be disruptive to those individuals.  She also said she was concerned that there may be few such programs available in the western part of the state where Barbara Govoni and her son live.

Earlier this week, we sent email queries to both the Children and Families Committee co-chairs and DDS to try to find out more about the proposals under consideration.

We have asked for records from DDS on the number of work opportunity programs that currently exist in DDS-funded, community-based day programs, and the number of work opportunity programs that DDS plans to establish.

We are also asking for the number of DDS clients who have been placed in “integrated employment” or mainstream workforce jobs and the number of DDS clients in community-based day programs since Fiscal 2014.

And we have asked DDS for its assessment as to whether there is a problem in providing suitable work opportunities for people in the DDS system who desire it, and whether some DDS clients are unable to function in mainstream work sites.

In addition, we’ve asked the co-chairs of the Children and Families Committee what the committee’s specific objections to H. 4541 were.

Despite the rejection of H. 4541, the opportunity remains for state legislators and policy makers to address the critical work opportunity problem facing developmentally disabled people across the state in an effective way.  We hope those legislators and policy makers will make a serious commitment to finding a workable solution; but we know from experience that deeds will be more important than words in that regard.

Families tell legislators that work opportunity bill for the developmentally disabled is about choice

A few days ago (on June 12), Barbara Govoni and Patty Garrity took their case to Beacon Hill for passage of H. 4541, a bill that would ensure that developmentally disabled individuals get work opportunities in their community-based day programs.

Also testifying at the June 12 public hearing of the Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee in support of the bill was Robin Frechette, a legislative aide to Representative Brian Ashe, who had filed the bill on Govoni’s behalf.

As we noted earlier this month, time is running out in the current legislative session to pass this critically important bill. And many legislators appear to have misconceptions about the legislation.

Govoni, Garrity, and Frechette all pointed out that H. 4541 is needed to fill a gap in work activities for the developmentally disabled — a gap that opened up after all sheltered workshops were closed in Massachusetts in 2016.

We too submitted testimony, and I spoke on behalf of COFAR to the four legislators present on the panel — Senator Joan Lovely, Senate co-chair of the committee; Representative Kay Khan, House co-chair; and Representatives Carolyn Dykema and Shaunna O’Connell.

Supporters of H. 4541

Supporters of H. 4541 on June 12 following the Children and Families Committee hearing. They are (from left) Patty Garrity, Robin Frechette, Danny Morin, Barb Govoni, and John Govoni.

The bill is Govoni’s vision and was filed after she had spent months advocating for it.

“I would not be here had there been a realistic decision to incorporate a community-based support program (when the sheltered workshops were closed),” Govoni testified. That program, she said, should have included a work activity option at day program facilities across the state.

Frechette testified that not all developmentally disabled persons are able to work successfully in mainstream work environments. Garrity pointed out that her brother, Mark, is one of those DDS clients who is “not able to compete in a competitive market for a job.”

Garrity said that when Mark participated in a sheltered workshop at his same day program location in Braintree prior to the workshop’s closure, “the work would come in and Mark would get a paycheck at the end of the week that provided him with self-esteem.” That is no longer the case, and not only is Mark bored with his current day program activities, he tends to let everyone he meets know he misses the work he used to do.

It is not clear yet whether the Children and Family Committee co-chairs are in support of H. 4541. An aide to Representative Khan said on Friday (June 15) that Khan and Lovely were “having a discussion” on all bills still in the committee as formal business in the current legislative session winds down, and would make a decision this week on which bills to report favorably.

Misconceptions persist about the workshop closures

During the June 12 committee hearing, comments from some legislators implied that they may not fully understand the intent of H. 4541 or the problems that have occurred as a result of the workshop closures.

Senator Lovely said that a developmentally disabled client of a DDS provider in her district worked as an intern for her and went on to work successfully at a CVS pharmacy. Lovely added, though, in addressing Govoni, that, “We do recognize that CVS may not be a good match for you,” meaning Govoni’s son, Danny Morin.

We want the legislators to know that the promises made that people would be able to move easily from the sheltered workshops and into mainstream employment have not materialized.

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Barbara Govoni testifies during June 12 public hearing on H. 4541

As we reported in 2016, the number of participants in sheltered workshops dropped by 1,166 between August 2014 and August 2015 — a 61 percent reduction — while the workshops were being closed. In that same period, the number of developmentally disabled persons in corporate-run, community-based day programs increased by 1,116, almost the same number as the number of participants who had left the workshops.

Yet, the number of developmentally disabled people in “integrated employment” settings increased from August 2014 to 2015 by only 337, or about 6 percent.  Placing people in integrated or mainstream employment was supposed to be the reason for closing the sheltered workshops!

Studies in other states have found similar outcomes from sheltered workshop closures.

We also want the members of the Children and Families Committee to understand that while H. 4541 is intended to address that unkept promise of access to mainstream employment, the bill isn’t intended to bring the actual workshops back.

DDS providers pushed for the workshop closures

We further want the legislators to know that while the closures of the sheltered workshops in Massachusetts was a policy of the administrations of then Governor Deval Patrick and later of current Governor Charlie Baker, the closures were supported by corporate providers to the Department of Developmental Services as well. The providers stood to gain financially from the closures to the extent that the closures would mean more funding for the provider-run day programs.

We have  pointed out that organizations representing corporate DDS providers in Massachusetts co-authored at least two reports with DDS in the period leading up to and during the closures of the sheltered workshops in the state. The reports both called for the closures of the workshops and for more funding for day programs.

It seemed to us at the time, and still does, to be inappropriate for DDS to have allowed the providers to co-author a document that called for a public policy intended to ensure more funding for those same providers, particularly given that the policy was opposed by individuals and families who were benefiting from the workshops.

Misconceptions about the federal role in closing the workshops

As the then Patrick administration began closing the workshops in Massachusetts, the administration argued that the closures were mandated by the federal government and that Massachusetts had no choice but to comply with the federal order.

But the federal government was actually telling the states at the time that sheltered workshops were permissible for those who wanted to remain in them; the problem, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, was that some states were “over-relying” on the workshops. It also appears that unlike Massachusetts, many, if not most other states did not view the federal government as having issued a clear directive to close their workshops.

In remarks in late 2016, in fact, then DDS Commissioner Elin Howe stated that Massachusetts was only the fourth state in the country to have closed all of its sheltered workshops.

In comments made during the June 12 hearing of the Children and Families Committee, some of the legislators appeared to have the impression that the federal government had required the closure of all sheltered workshops around the country, and that the workshops no longer existed.

However, sheltered workshops are continuing to operate in other states, and there have been successful legislative efforts in some of those states to preserve the workshops as an option for those who desire them.

In Missouri, families mounted a successful effort last year to protect the workshops in that state, and that movement has reportedly spread to other states.  State legislators in New Jersey similarly passed legislation last year to preserve the state’s sheltered workshops.

As things currently stand, the federal government has not ordered sheltered workshops to close and has extended a deadline for removing Medicaid funding for them until 2022.

We hope the state Legislature will recognize that H. 4541 is in line with federal guidelines because it doesn’t prevent anyone who wishes to do so from seeking employment in the mainstream workforce. The bill simply ensures that work opportunities exist for those who don’t choose to participate in mainstream employment.

In the end, H. 4541 is about choice.

 

 

Mother wages uphill battle for work opportunity bill for her developmentally disabled son

June 6, 2018 3 comments

[Update: The Legislature’s Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee has scheduled a public hearing at the Statehouse on Tuesday, June 12, at 1 p.m. on H. 4541]

Barbara Govoni personally lobbied for months before a bill was finally filed in the state Legislature that would ensure that developmentally disabled individuals who are unable to function in mainstream work environments are provided with employment opportunities within their existing community-based day programs.

Govoni would now love to see H. 4541 move forward in the current legislative session. She believes it would ensure that meaningful activities are provided for her son, Danny Morin, and for many others like him.

But even though the bill has close to two dozen co-sponsors, time does not appear to be on Govoni’s side.

With the current two-year legislative session drawing to an end, a staff aide to Representative Brian Ashe, who filed the bill on Govoni’s behalf, acknowledged that the chances for passage of H. 4541 this year are slim. The bill was referred last month to the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee.

Last September, we reported on Govoni’s efforts to reintroduce steady piecework activities in day programs for those who desire it. Danny had enjoyed the work he did in his Agawam-based sheltered workshop before that program and all other remaining workshop programs in the state were eliminated in 2016. After that, Danny was offered only day program activities in the same location, most of which he couldn’t relate to.

In recent months, Danny has been working once a week for about two hours at a time at an assembly and packaging company in Holyoke. It is a pale substitute for the steady work he enjoyed when he participated in the sheltered workshop.

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Barbara Govoni and her son Danny Morin

“People are suffering with not having enough work,” Govoni said. “This bill would have a monumental impact on the lives of these people if it were to pass.”

In addition to people such as Danny, there are many Department of Developmental Services clients who are either unable to function in mainstream work environments or are unable to work at a rate that those mainstream employers require.

H. 4541 specifies that the work program would be optional for day program participants and would allow them “an opportunity to work in a supportive employment environment which enhances productivity, safety and self-esteem.”

The work would be offered through the DDS-funded day programs for up to four hours a day. All participating individuals would receive a sub-minimum wage permissible under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Children and Families Committee had 30 days to act on the bill after it was referred there on May 21. But even if the committee were to act favorably on it within that time frame, the bill would probably still have to go through at least two additional committees including the House Ways and Means Committee before reaching the House and Senate floors.  After July 31, formal business in the current two-year legislative session comes to an end.

A staff aide to Representative Kay Khan, House chair of the Children and Families Committee, said the committee will schedule a public hearing on the bill this month. But the aide said there is only “a very low chance” that bill will reach the floor of the House prior to the July 31 deadline.

We strongly support this legislation and hope it doesn’t lose the momentum it has gained so far if, as seems likely, it has to be reintroduced when the new legislative session begins next January.

We understand the Baker administration and previous Patrick administration objected to sheltered workshops as  “segregated” settings because they offered work activities solely to groups of developmentally disabled persons.

What should make H. 4541 acceptable to people with those objections is that the employment program would be voluntary. In that sense, the bill mirrors  language that was inserted in the state budget in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016 that stated that sheltered workshops would remain open for those who wanted to remain in them. That language, however, did not prevent the Baker administration from closing all remaining sheltered workshops in 2016.

The voluntary nature of the employment program under H. 4541 may be why the bill has garnered co-sponsors from across the state. We hope more legislators begin to realize that the closures of the sheltered workshops has caused problems for many DDS clients, and that this bill is a good first step in addressing those problems.

Even though the bill’s chances are slim in the current session, we encourage people to call the Children and Families Committee to urge them to act quickly on the measure. You can reach the office of Rep. Khan, House chair, at (617) 722-2011, and Senator Joan Lovely, Senate chair, at (617) 722-1410.

Things ‘sliding backwards’ for two men after closure of their sheltered workshops (an update)

September 12, 2017 Leave a comment

Makeshift solutions that were adopted in recent months to help two men cope with the closures last year of their sheltered workshops have not been successful, members of their families say.

“It’s sliding backwards,” Patty Garrity, the sister of Mark Garrity, said in an interview last week. She said a paper shredding experiment that was tried with Mark in March worked only temporarily. Mark soon lost interest in the activity and is bored in his day program, which replaced his sheltered workshop.

In a separate day program, Danny Morin’s temporary work came to an end a few months after it began. In addition, the clients in Danny’s program are now scheduled to be moved into smaller, separate day programs, and Danny’s mother is concerned he could be separated from his long-time girlfriend, another client in his program.  The director of the program said that clients’ preferences would be considered in the relocation decisions.

While sheltered workshops were operating for both Mark Garrity and Danny Morin, piecework was always available and both men were satisfied and fulfilled by it, their family members say.

Barbara Govoni, Danny Morin’s mother, is trying to interest state lawmakers in her idea to reintroduce steady piecework activities in day programs for those who desire it. Govoni has proposed legislative language that would require the state to provide a “supportive work environment” to disabled persons who “cannot be comfortably be mainstreamed into a vocational community setting.”

In May, we first reported on the impact of the closures of their sheltered workshops on Mark and Danny and their families.

We noted that paid piecework and assembly work that had been given to Mark and Danny to do in their sheltered workshops were taken away last year and replaced by day program activities that they couldn’t relate to. In each case, their provider agency managed to come up with a makeshift solution to the problem that allowed the men to continue doing work similar to what they had done before.

Now it appears that those makeshift solutions haven’t solved the underlying problems created by the workshop closures for the two men and potentially others.

Sheltered workshops may have closed prematurely in Massachusetts 

All sheltered workshop programs were closed in Massachusetts as of last summer as a result of requirements by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that developmentally disabled people work in “integrated employment” settings in which a majority of the workers are not disabled.

But while sheltered workshops have been deemed “segregated” settings because they are offered solely to groups of developmentally disabled persons, many clients and their families and guardians have argued that the programs provide fulfilling, skill-building activities and do not preclude community integration. Moreover, it is not clear that the CMS has necessarily required the shutdown of all sheltered workshops.

In Massachusetts, the Baker administration and former Patrick administration claimed they had no choice but to close all of the workshops in the state, or else the federal government would bring a lawsuit against them.  But many other states have apparently not acted in the haste that Massachusetts did in shutting the programs down. Last year, DDS Commissioner Elin Howe, who has since retired, stated that Massachusetts was one of the first states in the country to close all of its workshops.

Paper shredding activity for Mark Garrity didn’t last

At the Road to Responsibility (RTR) day program in Braintree, which Mark Garrity attends, Mark was frustrated for months after his sheltered workshop at the site was closed in September of 2016. Piecework activities that Mark enjoyed doing came to an end and were replaced by nature walks, cooking classes, and a money management class, none of which interested Mark.

After COFAR contacted DDS about Mark’s situation in early March of this year, RTR staff found a paper shredding activity for Mark to do. The activity received verbal approval from the DDS southeast regional director, who determined that it was in compliance with federal regulations.

The paper shredding seemed at first to be a good solution for Mark, and he even got paid for it. But Mark’s sister, Patty Garrity, said that Mark soon sensed a lack of structure and purpose in the activity.  Mark is also sometimes asked to use the copy machine and to take the copied documents to staff offices; but Patty says that activity usually occupies only a few minutes of his day.

“I think he’s bored,” Patty said. “Every day I would pick him up and ask how’s it going with the shredding. It didn’t hold his interest.”

Patty said that despite the fact that funding was earmarked to pay Mark for doing the paper shredding, he recently stopped doing it. “Now he’s unproductive, and it’s not fair to him,” she said.

RTR officials have said that they did recently offer Mark an employment opportunity at a company outside of his day program; but Patty did not approve that offer for Mark, contending that Mark is not a suitable candidate for outside or mainstream employment. She said he is not able to produce at a rate that employers require in paying a minimum wage.

While his sheltered workshop was operating, Mark was paid by the piece, so the rate at which he was able to produce was not an issue. Moreover, jobs at the sheltered workshop would rotate. Mark was constantly busy then, Patty said, but now he is chafing under the lack of structure.

In addition, Mark appears to fall outside of at least one work category that still exists at his day program for clients who have been determined to be unable or too high-risk to function in the community outside the program. While those clients have been given work to do each day folding t-shirts, Mark has not been offered that work because he has not been ruled unsuitable for community interaction.

“They’re (the RTR staff) trying to do the best they can,” Patty said, “but the people are bored.”

Work at Work Opportunity Center site is intermittent

 At the Work Opportunity Center day program in Agawam which Barbara Govoni’s son, Danny, attends, some piecework has been available intermittently from a company that is located in the same building in the center.

The company, Millennium Press, used to supply piecework activities to the Work Opportunity Center when the Center operated as a sheltered workshop. Now the company rents a portion of the Work Opportunity Center’s building.

The work offered by the Millennium Press to clients of the Work Opportunity Center since the closure of the sheltered workshop complies with federal regulations because non-disabled people also work for that company. Danny Morin and other clients of the Center signed an agreement to be paid a sub-minimum wage for doing the work.

However, Barbara said that the Millennium Press work is not steady. Danny and other clients in the Center were kept busy recently for three to four months putting stickers on envelopes and boxes for the company, but they finished ahead of schedule, she said, and the work came to an end.

Pushing for legislation to bring back workshop activities

Govoni has been trying to interest legislators and her congressman in filing legislation at either the federal or state level that would ensure the legality in Massachusetts and potentially other states of a steady supply of piecework activities for persons who desire them. She met last week with state Representative Brian Ashe, a Democratic legislator who represents her hometown of Hampden, to discuss her proposal.

Such legislation would be similar to language that was inserted in the state budget in Fiscal Years 2015 and 2016 that stated that sheltered workshops would remain open for those who wanted to remain in them. Unfortunately, that language did not prevent the Baker administration from closing all remaining sheltered workshops last year.

Govoni’s proposed legislative language would require the state or states (if her language was enacted by Congress) “to provide a supportive work environment, separate from the mainstream community, to enhance productivity, safety and self-esteem.” The language states that the separate work environment is not meant to exclude “other forms of integration or inclusion.”

We emailed Ashe’s legislative aide last month with our support of Govoni’s proposed legislation, but have not heard back. Govoni said Ashe told her he would bring her idea to the attention of “the proper legislative committee” in the Massachusetts Legislature.

Clients at the Work Opportunity Center will be split into groups 

Govoni said the clients in her son’s day program will be split into three groups and that each group will be sent to a different day program location based on where they live. She was told at first that the decisions on the new locations would not be based on any existing preferences the clients had expressed such as preferences for maintaining relationships they may have formed in the Agawam center.

DDS regulations state that the Department must provide services that promote “self‑determination and freedom of choice to the individual’s fullest capability.” If clients are being moved to different locations without regard to their personal preferences, it would appear that they are not being allowed to exercise self-determination or freedom of choice in that respect.

Bob MacDonald, executive director of the Work Opportunity Center, said that after discussing the issue with DDS, he has received clarification that the relocations should take client preferences into account. MacDonald said each relocation decision will take into consideration 1) where the individual lives, 2) the “consumer’s preference,” and 3) the recommendation of the individual’s clinical care (ISP) team.

Without discussing specific people, MacDonald said that if two clients are known to have a relationship or a preference for staying together, that would or should be taken into consideration in the relocation decision.

We hope that Representative Ashe and others in the Legislature will make a sincere effort to promote legislation that will ensure the restoration of steady and meaningful work activities for those in DDS day programs that desire them.

Even if someone believes that DDS-centered work activities tend to segregate or exploit those individuals (and we don’t believe that to be the case), we think everyone should respect the wishes of those individuals and their families and guardians who want to engage in those activities. That is what self-direction and freedom of choice are all about.

A look at the struggles of two families to cope with closures of sheltered workshops in Massachusetts

May 1, 2017 5 comments

When Massachusetts closed its remaining sheltered workshops for people with developmental disabilities last summer, deeming the programs “segregated,” the impact of the closures on workshop participants Mark Garrity and Danny Morin was pretty much the same.

The two men continued to go every day to their respective facilities where their sheltered workshops had formerly been operated by providers funded by the Department of Developmental Services. But while the providers continued to manage the same facilities, each provider now began offering their clients traditional, DDS-funded day program activities instead.

Paid piecework and assembly work that had been given to Garrity and Morin to do in their sheltered workshops were taken away and replaced by day program activities that they couldn’t relate to. In each case, their provider agency managed to come up with a makeshift solution to the problem that allowed the men to continue doing work similar to what they had done before.

Patty and Mark Garrity photo

Patty Garrity and her brother, Mark Garrity

But in each case, the solutions were implemented despite a lack of clear, written standards or guidance from the federal and state governments on the type of work and activities that were now permitted for the men. Their family and guardians were confused as well, often having to rely on information passed along from program staff or family of other clients.

Even some providers acknowledge that the system functioned more smoothly for everyone when the providers were operating their programs as sheltered workshops. At that time, participating companies would ship materials to the providers, and everyone at the workshop sites would have work to do — usually simple assembly jobs or packaging or labeling tasks.

Now, those providers must either send their clients to companies that offer to provide “integrated” work for them, or must try to continue to provide some on-site work under unclear rules that sometimes result in work arrangements that are adopted verbally and on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, most of their clients are now offered only day program activities that do not involve productive work and do not pay anything.

For Barbara Govoni, the mother of Danny Morin, and for Patty Garrity, the sister of Mark Garrity, the sheltered workshops were not only easier for them to deal with, they provided meaningful and satisfying activities for their respective loved ones.

“My argument is whether it was federal or state, they should not have taken away the workshops for those who can’t function in the community and disrupted their lives,” Govoni said. “I’m not opposed to finding jobs in the community or expanding day programs. I get it all has to do with money, but I feel that a group of people are being discriminated against based on the fact they had no voice or vote. They have been taken out of their element where they were comfortable.”

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Barbara Govoni and her son, Danny Morin

Govoni views the policy of providing integrated employment to all developmentally disabled people as a “misguided one-size-fits-all” approach to a complex social need.

State cites federal pressure to close workshops

All sheltered workshop programs were closed in Massachusetts as of last summer as a result of requirements by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) that developmentally disabled people work in “integrated employment” settings in which a majority of the workers are not disabled, and that they be paid the minimum wage in those settings. Sheltered workshops were deemed “segregated” settings because they were offered solely to groups of developmentally disabled persons, and the clients were often paid only a nominal amount for the work they did.

In Massachusetts, the Baker administration claimed it had no choice but to follow the CMS rules and close all of the workshops in the state, or else the federal government would bring a lawsuit against them.  But many other states have apparently not acted in the haste that Massachusetts did in shutting the programs down. DDS Commissioner Elin Howe stated late last year that Massachusetts was one of the first states in the country to close all of its workshops.

DDS and its major policy advisors, the Arc of Massachusetts and the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP), had actually wanted to close all of the sheltered workshops in Massachusetts as early as June of 2015. But in the wake of strong protests by families of workshop participants, the state Legislature temporarily slowed the closure process by inserting budget language in fiscal years 2014 and 2015, stating that DDS must continue to make sheltered workshops available for those clients who continued to want them.

But at the same time, the Legislature approved funding for the transfer of the participants out of the workshops and into day programs or employment programs. That move ultimately allowed the workshops to close while enabling legislators to claim they had acted to save the programs.

The closures of the sheltered workshops in Massachusetts resulted in the removal from those programs of close to 2,000 participants, but those closures do not appear to have translated into a steady flow of people into integrated employment.

Verbal permission given for on-site work

At the Road to Responsibility day program site in Braintree, which Mark Garrity attends, I met in late March with Patty Garrity and with senior staff of the provider and DDS officials to discuss Mark’s experience in making the transition from his sheltered workshop to the new system.

Like Barbara Govoni, Patty Garrity said the transition from the sheltered workshop has been difficult. Before RTR ceased operating as a sheltered workshop, Mark did a range of activities there, including collating, packaging, and other production work.

For months, after the workshop was closed in September of 2016, Mark was frustrated and angry, Patty said. RTR provided day program activities for him, but, as Patty put it, they “went over his head.” He wasn’t interested in nature walks or painting or cooking. In particular, he didn’t understand the class on money management.

In addition to his intellectual disability, Mark Garrity had suffered a traumatic brain injury in 1995 after having been hit by a car.  He underwent years of rehabilitation from that accident, which had nearly killed him.

In a letter written before Mark’s sheltered workshop program was ended, Mark’s neurologist, Dr. Douglas Katz, a member of the Department of Neurology at Boston Medical Center and a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, stated that participating in the workshop had been “an important part of his (Mark’s) rehabilitation effort…and…his life before his injury. It is an activity that is highly rewarding for Mark. He looks forward to it on a daily basis.”

Katz added that, “I understand this program is …likely to close because of new rules passed by the CMS. I think this would be a big loss for my patient Mark. I would support efforts to maintain this structured workshop for Mark and others that benefit from this service.”

As of March 2 of this year, when I first talked to Patty, RTR still had no work for Mark to do that was similar to the work he had done prior to RTR’s changeover from a sheltered workshop to a day program site. But as of March 20, RTR officials said they had found paper shredding work for Mark for two out of the four hours a day that he attended the program.

The paper shredding arrangement at RTR was done after DDS southeast regional director Richard O’Meara determined that it would not violate the CMS rules. O’Meara said the permission he gave to RTR to offer paper shredding to Mark was purely verbal. There was nothing placed in writing about it.

Hearsay information on piecework eligibility requirement 

In January 2016, Govoni said, the Agawam-based Work Opportunity Center, her son’s former sheltered workshop provider, temporarily operated day programs in a function room in a local church after having closed its sheltered workshop program. “I walked in there one day (the temporary day program site),” she said, “and it appeared chaotic, with no structured activities.”

All of the Work Opportunity Center’s clients are now back at the agency’s facility. Govoni’s son gets sent out occasionally to integrated work sites and has some piecework to do at the Work Opportunity site as well. But the work is intermittent. She said she has also heard that those who want to do piecework at the Work Opportunity location will have to take a class explaining what piecework involves.

However, once again, Govoni said she has received nothing in writing about the reported class. She heard about it “through the grapevine.”

In the meantime, Govoni’s son receives a schedule of activities every month at the Work Opportunity Center.  “I’m not saying it’s bad,” Govoni said, “but it’s not what he is interested in.” She said many of the activities are educational, such as lectures on geography or cooking demonstrations. Volunteer work is available as well at a local homeless shelter, and residents are taken on walks to the local library and other locations. “Danny doesn’t want to do that,” she said. “He wants to work.”

Both Govoni and Patty Garrity said Danny and Mark respectively didn’t care about making the minimum wage, and would rather work at their day program sites than get sent out to jobs in the community.

Disagreement over client and family satisfaction

If, like Barbara Govoni and Patty Garrity, family members are confused or dissatisfied by the current situation, O’Meara said, they aren’t letting him know about it. O’Meara said that he and DDS Area Director Colleen Mulligan, who was also in attendance at the March 20 meeting at RTR, are generally the first people whom family members and guardians call when there are problems with DDS care.

“I haven’t gotten a lot of complaints (about the closures of the sheltered workshops in his region),” O’Meara said. “Generally, if people are not happy, we know about it.  These issues are addressed through the ISP (Individual Support Plans). I haven’t had many calls.”

Mulligan added that if problems were occurring like the ones Garrity has described, “I’m not hearing about it.”

But Garrity and some other advocates believe there may be few complaints now because the vocal protests that did occur when the workshop closures were first announced largely died down when families and guardians saw that their protests were having little effect.

A debate over integrated employment

At RTR, Chris White, the agency’s chief executive officer, maintained that even if the CMS requirements have been difficult to comply with, the requirements make sense because he believes that “everyone is capable” of working at integrated employment sites.

White’s viewpoint is in line with an August 2010 DDS policy document that states that “it has now been clearly demonstrated that individuals who were previously considered unemployable in integrated community settings can work successfully.”

But Govoni and Garrity maintained that the ideological viewpoint that the workshops segregated their participants and that integrated employment is feasible for everyone does not apply in their cases. “My son couldn’t wait to go to work (at his former sheltered workshop),” Govoni said. “He was not discriminated against. It was not a sweatshop for him, but the opposite. He doesn’t thrive in integrated sites. He would much prefer staying at the workshop where he was more comfortable. He doesn’t care what he gets paid.”

Govoni said that efforts to place her son in integrated work settings often did not work. In one case, she said, Danny was not able to do the work fast enough to satisfy the employer, and was terminated from the job. The speed of his work did not matter in the sheltered workshop.

Moreover, Govoni and Garrity maintained that even if integrated employment arrangements were feasible for everyone, there are not enough such jobs available to fulfill the demand now that the sheltered workshops are no longer available.

White said there were about 109 clients at RTR who were involved in “integrated group employment” at various job sites. That number was expected to rise this spring to about 120, he said.

At the same time, some 200 clients remained in RTR’s day program. White maintained, however, that those clients were happy with the activities they were doing, and that some were “on a retirement track.”

But it may be an open question whether all or most former workshop clients are really happy in day programs, or whether they simply have no choice but to remain in them.

Even DDS Commissioner Elin Howe appears to acknowledge that the state and its providers have been unable to find mainstream workforce jobs for a significant number of former workshop participants. While Howe made public remarks last year that we believe painted an overly rosy picture of the integrated employment situation, she did acknowledge that “many people transitioned (from sheltered workshops) to Community Based Day Support programs,” although she did not say how many.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has slowed funding for the transition to integrated employment. In order to carry out the administration’s integrated employment policy, the Legislature initially increased funding of the community-based day program line item in the state budget, and created a new line item to fund the transfers from the sheltered workshops.  The idea was to increase both day program and job development staffing and training.

The new sheltered workshop transfer budget line item was initially funded in Fiscal 2015 with $1 million.  That amount was raised to $3 million in Fiscal 2016, and the governor proposed to boost it to $7.6 million in Fiscal 2017.  But the House and the Senate did not go along with the governor’s plan. The Legislature level-funded the line item for Fiscal 2017. The line item was not included in the governor’s budget for Fiscal 2018.

We agree with Garrity and Govoni that the case has not been made that integrated employment is suitable for all people with developmental disabilities, and it is apparent that not enough integrated work opportunities even exist for all of those that could benefit from it.

We think the federal government needs to rethink its flawed ideology regarding sheltered workshops, particularly the questionable claim that they are discriminatory and segregate their participants.  The experience of Mark Garrity and Danny Morin provide further evidence that that claim is untrue.