Disabled workers paid sub-minimum wages in sheltered workshops

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When I was young - until about eleven years old - I was labeled with what was then called "mental retardation." Additionally, I have cerebral palsy. The label "mental retardation" is now called "intellectual disability" by socially sensitive and progressive folks.

During this early period of my development I was in and out of foster care. I came from a working-class family. My birth parents were barely able to support our family, let alone a child with a physical disability. Through the foster care system, I was put into what amounts to a day institution, not a school - though it disguised itself as one.

In this place, I received intensive physical and occupational therapy, as well as training for my future, which was pre-determined to be a "sheltered workshop" environment.

Very little attention, if any, was given to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. My life remained patterned - five days a week in the institution, where I learned to fold paper and put the paper into envelopes or screw nuts into bolts. The weekends were spent relatively carefree, playing with my foster brothers and sisters or romping around the streets with my twin brother Eric and older brother Jay.

At the age of 11, my pattern was positively, permanently interrupted when I was adopted by a middle-class family from the state of West Virginia. My adoption resulted in my eventual university training as an artist and advanced training as a community organizer.

My adopted parents observed me. They saw my capabilities, not just from a surface perspective. They saw my deeper possibilities! Unfortunately, thousands of individuals with disabilities don't get the opportunities that I've been blessed with.

Whether wards of the state or members of an all-American family, people with intellectual or physical disabilities are often working in "sheltered workshops" across this nation for sub-minimum wage. I would even argue that a lot of these working folks aren't even challenged by the work they've been tasked with.

On top of the degrading sub-minimum wage and unchallenging, repetitive work, these folks when they reach retirement age often only receive their Social Security benefits - some after giving 30 years to a "sheltered workshop" environment.

My partners' uncle passed away this past year. He had Down's Syndrome. Dennis loved his work at the workshop. His family - an immigrant family, only a few generations in the United States - found great pride in being able to say Dennis "worked." In writing this article, I am attempting to honor Dennis' work life the way his "sheltered workshop" never did, as upon his "retirement" he only received a piece of paper, an acknowledgment of "completing his training." After 30 years, just a piece of paper. No retirement benefits.

Dennis, and thousands like him, put together the small parts that make your vacuum cleaner or fold the balloons that you buy for your child's birthday. These workers with developmental disabilities are deeply connected to your everyday interaction in the world. They deserve recognition as workers.

How is it possible that a person like Dennis could legally only be paid ten-cents on the hour? The systems that control these "sheltered workshops" cleverly call what Dennis did for 30 years "on-the-job-training." Therefore, they don't have to follow the same state or federal mandates regarding employment.

I've been in many states that hold the "sheltered workshop" system up as examples of engaging folks with disabilities in meaningful employment. Dennis got a lot out his job. He enjoyed it. He loved it. I'm not arguing that workshops aren't beneficial or don't provide opportunities for employment of people with disabilities.

However, let's be honest. Let's be real. It's wage slavery. It is crass exploitation. I believe we should call it what it is. A "sheltered workshop" is no different than a sweatshop, especially if they don't honor the worker with a living wage and retirement security.

Let's honor all workers with a fair wage. Let's put disabled and non-disabled workers on the same workshop floors and develop an honorable, respectable pay scale and pension system or retirement plan that takes into account our desire to live in a just, fair and equal society, not one of exploitation.

For all workers like Dennis - a man who loved his job, his family and his fellow workers - let's make sure all work is valued by reforming the "sheltered workshop" system.

Photo: Matt Rourke/AP

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  • It is indeed a pitiful story as disabled people are special they should be taken be taken care off delicately.

    Posted by Justin, 08/04/2014 6:54am (29 days ago)

  • I started out in a Sheltered work shop, I only have a learning disabilty, butI worked from, July of 1991, until, November of 1998, I worked in the cafetria for a while, doing dishes, sweeping floors never got to really cook or use cash register, maybe one time, I thought at times, they wantto hold you back, I lived with my parents still, I did what I wanted I wanted really, but case manager,said, that my family didn't give me freedom, which was not true, I went on activities provided,had friends I met at,the workshop, and on my own and did my household duties.I did decide I was able to live on my own, in 1994, My family really didn't think I was,ready but, I moved,in with my best,friend, we lived togther for a while in an apartment, The people at first tried to get me to sign papers, I was afraid as I thought they would put me in a group home, They didn't They simply gave me the help to assist living on my own, as I could wash clothes clean,etc, as I did at home ,My mom was my reppayee, for a while, But then I started dating a nice handsome man and he we becam close and he worked and still works,, I got job coaching, we belong to a Self Advocacy group, We started really dating in 1996, and remained together he moved in with me close to1998, in the mobile home I lived in and made a life for ourselves, we both work, a job

    Posted by Anne Marie Adcock, 03/17/2014 10:57am (6 months ago)

  • I agree with the view point of the author entirely. As a supreme court justice in India once said "Every man/ woman must be able to manifest his /her capabilities despite disabilities through a dynamic discovery of himself/herself assisted by society in the field of education and employment. exploration,development and deployment of human potential in the disabled is the basis of meaningful life for the disabled. "
    we find that society is engaged in such a process regarding most of the non disabled persons, regarding disabled their is a tyranny of low expectation or non expectation. they are relegated to the most menial of jobs or even without that. The situation has to change with the united efforts of the all disabled and their caregivers.

    Posted by G.N. Nagaraj, 03/17/2014 10:23am (6 months ago)

  • I once experienced the workshop experience with MERS now Mers/Goodwill while being evaluated by Missouri Vocational Rehabilitation and when I was stuck in this room shoving Smelling Salt capsules into shoe strings and found out they were only paying me $2.25 an hour, I decided to balk on the sweat shop and refused to do any of the work because I felt I was being taken advantage of. After all I was being evaluated to go to college and not to work in a sweat shop. Although the people were nice and accommodating I just couldn't stand being used. All people who work should receive a living wage for their work even those of us with disabilities.

    Posted by Charlene Leona Marks, 03/13/2014 11:53pm (6 months ago)

  • This is such a noble effort to stop the terrible capitalistic methodology in holding back unfortunate workers.

    Let us work towards "equality" in this labour regard!

    observer Jules....

    Posted by jules, 03/13/2014 5:25pm (6 months ago)

  • In my earlier work life I worked on staff and as a manager at group homes and day treatment centers for developmentally disabled adults in New York City. Many of the program participants had jobs in a variety of sheltered workshops of the type described by Chris, making everything from earplugs for airlines to packaging makeup for Avon products. The pay was dismal and the working conditions were horrific. In one of the group homes I worked at I was able to facilitate the finding of regular employment for four of the ten residents who went to these "workshops." A man who had spent 15 years putting caps on laundry markers ended up as a maintenance person at a large store. Another who put paper clips into little bags for 20 years became a union elevator operator and incredibly, an individual who packaged pencils for ten years entered and graduated from a program that earned him certification as an air conditioning and refrigeration technician. He got a $25 dollar an hour job repairing air conditioners in Brooklyn (this was back in the1980's) In every single one of these cases we had to do battle with people who ran the workshops The produces pages of documentation that they alleged showed the individuals could never succeed outside of their workshops. Its time to end the use of the handicapped as a supply of cheap labor. They and everyone else deserve a living wage.

    Posted by John Wojcik, 03/12/2014 4:16pm (6 months ago)

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