The Patrick administration’s decision to close group worksites known as sheltered workshops for persons with developmental disabilities as of June 2015 is causing anxiety to many families and confusion apparently even to many service providers.
As we previously reported, these programs, which provide assembly and other jobs in group settings, are considered politically incorrect by the state and federal governments because they allegedly “segregate” disabled from non-disabled people and pay some of them below minimum wages. But as we’ve noted, many family members of workshop participants maintain that sheltered workshop programs provide their loved ones with important skills and meaningful activities; and they say they are not prevented from regular interaction with non-disabled people.
The Patrick administration, however, is moving ahead quickly with the shutdown of sheltered workshops. Backed by the Arc of Massachusetts and the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers, Governor Patrick has proposed an additional $5.6 million in the coming fiscal year under the Department of Developmental Services Day and Work program line item (5920-2025) in the state budget, to transfer people from sheltered workshops to DDS day programs. The Arc and ADDP are asking for an additional $5.5 million on top of that.
Families of sheltered workshop participants are being told by DDS, the Arc, and the ADDP that their loved ones will remain in community day programs while DDS provides them with job coaching and other employable skills, and looks for opportunities to place them in the mainstream workforce. The current sheltered workshop programs, they say, will be replaced by “supported” or “integrated employment” programs in which developmentally disabled people will work alongside non-disabled people in actual businesses and will earn at least the minimum wage.
But there is uncertainty over how many mainstream or “integrated” jobs really exist for most people with developmental disabilities. And while DDS maintains that current sheltered workshop providers will stay in operation, we and others have many questions for which answers are hard to come by:
- Will the additional funding being sought by the governor, the Arc, and the ADDP be used to provide meaningful work activities and skills to disabled persons after their sheltered workshop programs have been closed? Or will the transfers of workshop participants to day programs simply result in the warehousing of people who were previously engaged in paid work?
- Will providers that switch from sheltered workshops to supported employment programs have to dismiss a certain number of developmentally disabled participants from paying jobs and replace them with non-disabled individuals so that the new programs would then be fully “integrated,” i.e., not have too many disabled people or too few non-disabled people working in them?
- What is the acceptable number of disabled people in one setting before it is considered a segregated workplace?
- What is the minimum required number of non-disabled persons in a given workplace, which employs disabled people?
There seems to be little clear guidance on these issues from DDS or the federal government, which is phasing out sheltered workshops on a national scale. Thus far, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is not putting too much specificity into its rules and regulations on the matter. In an informational bulletin issued in 2011, the CMS stated that supported employment programs “must be provided in a manner that promotes integration into the workplace and interaction between participants and people without disabilities in those workplaces.”
But what does integration into the workplace really mean? What constitutes interaction between participants and people without disabilities? How many people without disabilities must be present in order to satisfy the CMS and DDS?
Similar questions surround the CMS’s requirement that supported employment programs pay disabled individuals “competitive wages,” which is defined by the CMS informational bulletin as “at or above the minimum wage, but not less than the customary wage and level of benefits paid by the employer for the same or similar work performed by individuals without disabilities.”
Is it fair to require that a disabled individual who lives in a state-supported residential setting be paid the same as a non-disabled person who must pay rent or a mortgage? Related to this is what impact will receiving a minimum or prevailing wage have on a disabled person’s Social Security benefits?
Many of these questions came up at a forum held earlier this week by DDS in Easthampton on its sheltered workshop phase-out plan. Among those attending was Ed Orzechowski, president of the Advocacy Network, an organization affiliated with COFAR. Orzechowski noted that the forum was well attended by family members, who expressed concern and anxiety about what will happen to the workshops in which their loved ones have participated for many years.
While admitting that the promised effort to place current workshop participants in “integrated” jobs “will not be easy,” DDS representatives insisted to the families in Easthampton that the state has little choice but to move ahead with the workshop closures. They cited federal lawsuits, filed by the Department of Justice in recent years against the states of Rhode Island and Oregon, alleging that sheltered workshops in those states were segregated settings.
Fear of a federal lawsuit may be behind the Patrick administration’s desire to move as quickly as possible to shut sheltered workshops in Massachusetts. But it’s also the case that the Patrick administration has long subscribed to the Obama administration’s untenable position that all congregate forms of care for the disabled are discriminatory. The effect of this position has been to privatize a growing list of state services to the disabled and thereby put ever more money in the pockets of the CEOs of corporate providers represented by the Arc and the ADDP.
We fear that the effort to shut down sheltered workshops is really largely about more money for corporate providers of day programs. It is also about forcing people into a theoretical model of care, which, as usual, denies them and their families any say in that model. As one commenter to a previous post of ours said, the CMS and DDS-supported workshop model is akin to forcing her to spend her days with either a group of astrophysicists or teen skateboarders even though she happens to have nothing in common with those two groups.
We hope that at the very least, DDS will agree to keep sheltered workshops open in the state as long as it takes to place all of the current participants in them in promised jobs in the mainstream workforce. DDS has an obligation to provide continuity of service to these individuals and their families. Their lives should not be placed in upheaval based on a plan fraught with so many unanswered questions.