In opening remarks at a conference on employment opportunities for the developmentally disabled late last year, Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Elin Howe gave what appears to be an overly rosy assessment of the likelihood of mainstream jobs for those people.
In her written remarks delivered to the November 30 conference, which was hosted by DDS and the UMass Institute for Community Inclusion, Howe appeared to imply that former participants in sheltered workshops, which the administration has worked to close, have been placed in mainstream jobs at a record rate.
“There are now more people working in individual jobs in the community than ever before,” Howe stated.
But while the numbers Howe cited show an increase in the number of people placed in mainstream jobs since 2013, it appears that most of that increase occurred between 2013 and 2014, before the workshop closures took place. Since 2014, DDS data indicates that the number of people finding mainstream jobs declined rapidly.
Howe noted that all remaining sheltered workshops in the state were closed as of last July 1, and that Massachusetts was only the fourth state in the nation to do that. But the loss of those workshops should not be a cause for concern, Howe contended, because, there were now more than 3,300 individuals working in “group supported employment” in the state – an increase of over 1,300 people since June 2013.
Group supported employment is defined by DDS as “a small group of individuals, (typically 2 to 8), working in the community under the supervision of a provider agency.” In contrast to sheltered workshops, supported employment places an “emphasis…on work in an integrated environment,” which means that developmentally disabled persons work in the same location as non-disabled individuals.
An increase of 1,300 disabled people in group supported employment would work out to a 65 percent increase in the number of people in that category since 2013, which sounds like a major success story.
But of that total increase cited by Howe of 1,300 individuals, 998 — or nearly 77 percent of them — appear to have entered group supported employment between 2013 and 2014, according to data provided by DDS.
The DDS numbers show there was an increase of only 146 people in group supported employment between August 2014 and August 2015. Between August 2015 and November 2016, when all remaining sheltered workshops were closed, there was an increase of only 156 people in group supported employment.
So, while the number of people in group supported employment appears to have increased by almost 50 percent between 2013 and 2014, the increase in the two-year period from 2014 to 2016 dropped to about 10 percent.
The closures of the sheltered workshops in Massachusetts has resulted in the removal from those programs of close to 2,000 participants since 2013; but those closures did not appear to have translated into a steady flow of people into supported employment. Even Howe appears to acknowledge that a significant percentage of those former workshop participants have not found mainstream workforce jobs.
In her remarks, Howe stated that “many people transitioned (from sheltered workshops) to Community Based Day Support programs,” but didn’t say how many. Day programs are often really just daycare programs that do not offer work-based or skill-building activities to the people in them.
The Massachusetts Developmental Disabilities Council, which is part of the Baker administration, appears to acknowledge the problem of employment in its State Plan for 2016, noting that:
…there are fewer people being placed in successful employment due to staff layoffs and the current fiscal environment. In order for more services to be made available, it is important to create partnerships and work with various state agencies in order to address this significant issue that is and will continue to be of concern. (my emphasis)
Last year, however, the Legislature failed to provide funding sought by Governor Baker for the transition from workshops to supported employment.
Rather than touting the supposed good news about the closures of the workshops, Howe should have acknowledged ongoing concerns about the apparent difficulty of finding mainstream work for people with developmental disabilities.