It’s now up to a legislative conference committee to decide whether Ally, Kim, Allison, Gail and many others will continue their longtime participation in sheltered workshops for the intellectually disabled in Massachusetts.
Ally is 24 years old and has Down Syndrome. She is non-verbal and suffers from anxiety, but excels at routine. Her tasks and assignments at a workshop in Newburyport provide her with a feeling of satisfaction and importance, and with a paycheck, which she endorses and cashes at a local bank. She then walks with her mother to a convenience store where she purchases items with her earnings.
Kim, 43, has worked in the same sheltered workshop for 23 years. She has tried a number of times to work at jobs in the community, but those attempts have all failed for a variety of emotional, social and physical reasons. However, by choice, she puts in a 30-hour workweek in the sheltered workshop. She lives in her own apartment with support from her parents and other family members, and from people in the community.
Allison is 44 and has been a client of the workshop for 22 years. During that time, she has grown in independence, but enjoys being with her peers in an organized, safe environment. She works a few hours a week at a McDonald’s, but returns to the workshop every day. She is very proud of earning two paychecks.
Gail is 44 and has Down Syndrome. “I like to get paid to do the work I like to do. I like to work with my friends,” she says of her participation in the workshop. She lives in an apartment managed by the YWCA in Newburyport, makes her own breakfast and lunch, and takes a bus to the workshop every day. Doing all of that requires 100 percent of her capability. Gail has had several part-time jobs in the community, all of which, for a variety of reasons, have ended. Her workshop job is the primary basis of her self-esteem.
However, the Patrick administration and state-funded, corporate providers believe they know better than these four women and their families what’s best for all of them, and are moving to close the Newburyport workshop and the rest of the sheltered workshops throughout the state.
As we have reported in several blog posts, the administration believes it would be better for Ally, Kim, Allison, Gail, and hundreds of other intellectually disabled persons throughout the state to work in mainstream jobs where they will not be “segregated” from non-disabled peers and will supposedly be able to earn higher wages. DDS announced that it was no longer allowing new referrals to sheltered workshops in the state as of this past January, and plans to close all remaining workshops as of June 2015.
But the families of workshop participants are fighting back, arguing that appropriate mainstream work opportunities do not exist for their loved ones, and that the sheltered workshops provide what they want and need. They maintain that when the workshops are gone, the former participants will end up stuck in DDS day programs with little to do and with no wages at all.
In late April, at the urging of families, workshop staff, and advocates, the House of Representatives inserted language in the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget to protect the workshops. The line-item language is intended to prevent the planned closures of sheltered workshops if existing participants choose to remain in them. The Senate, however, did not adopt the protective language. As a result, the issue is now set to be decided by a legislative, House-Senate conference committee on the budget.
The Department of Developmental Services and DDS’s corporate providers are apparently already moving to head off the possibility that the conference committee will adopt the protective language in the House version of the budget. We understand that late last week, Gary Blumenthal, president of the Massachusetts Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers (ADDP), held a meeting with administrators and staff and some parents in one sheltered workshop, and offered a vague promise to schedule another meeting with DDS to discuss keeping some of the workshops open on a limited basis.
Vague promises do not and should not take the place of clear and needed statutory language. We hope that the message gets communicated to the conference committee, which is set to begin deliberations on the budget on June 4, that such promises will not suffice. The protective language in the House budget should be adopted by the conference committee.
In coming weeks, we hope all six members of the conference committee will come to understand what participating in their sheltered workshops has meant for Ally, Kim, Allison, Gail, and for so many others.