Hiking for segregation: The fight to keep sheltered workshops

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Ericka Jones

Hiking for segregation: The fight to keep sheltered workshops

Earlier this week, a group of several people and a small dog embarked on a journey from Watertown, NY to Albany, NY. That’s about 264 miles if you’re curious… on foot. Katherine Robertson, director of the Northern New York Autism Foundation, was joined by friends and family, including Katherine’s daughter who works for a local sheltered workshop, on the walk. Their mission is to make a point about the importance of sheltered works to people with disabilities. Though, from the article in the Watertown Daily Times, it is unclear if the small senior dog was for or against the sheltered workshops.

One of the big issues is that sheltered workshops pay their workers subminimum wages. Every person who performs a task should be paid a fair wage regardless of disability. Period. Sheltered workshops are also segregated and do not teach the professional skills that could be learned in an integrated work setting. Also, it’s still legal to pay someone as little as $2 or $0.22 an HOUR to work in a segregated workspace if the worker has a disability. This is due to section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Basically it means that workers employed under 14(c) are paid by their productivity with no legal minimum wage. That is how someone can be paid legally $.22 an hour to sort buttons or seal envelopes.

The use of section 14(c) in this way is exploitation at its finest. There have been studies that show that if given proper support, most of the people currently in sheltered workshops could earn above minimum wage. Section 14 (c) was created in a time where there were no people with disabilities in the workforce. The assumptions of the time were that people with disabilities weren’t capable of doing anything at all. This old fashioned way of thinking needs to change. Teaching people with disabilities menial tasks using outdated techniques. People in sheltered workshops cannot use the skills learned in the workshops to find a competitive job. All they can do with these “jobs” is to continue to work in sheltered workshops. Many companies used to pay unfair wages and put workers in unsafe conditions but the laws changed and now people are REQUIRED to have safe conditions and fair pay. It’s only fair to include everyone in the law regardless of disability and to do otherwise is discrimination.

The outcry to keep sheltered workshops open typically stems from a fear that people with disabilities will either be forced to stay at home or be forced into adult programs that they don’t want to participate in. However, The U.S. Department of Education stepped in to change Vocational Rehabilitation’s program to help people with disabilities get into competitive integrated employment. Unpaid workers would no longer qualify as a potential employment outcome in Vocational Rehabilitations plans and “economic self-sufficiency” must be part of the criteria in helping people with disabilities establish goals. Everyone deserves the right to earn money independently. Why can’t that apply all people with disabilities?