Despite the passage of protective language in the state budget last year and this year, the Department of Developmental Services appears to be moving rapidly to shut down all remaining sheltered workshops in the state for people with developmental disabilities.
“Can’t believe after all the hard work so many people put in, it (the workshop closures) is still happening,” one workshop supporter wrote in an email, referring to grassroots lobbying efforts mounted in the past two years to keep the workshops open.
The protective language that was inserted by State Representative Brian Dempsey in the past two years into the DDS community day line item in the budget seemed to be definitive. The language states that DDS “shall not reduce the availability or decrease funding for sheltered workshops serving persons with disabilities who voluntarily seek or wish to retain such employment services.”
At the same time, however, Dempsey’s House Ways and Means Committee supported the appropriation of $1 million last year and $3 million this year in a separate DDS line item to fund the transfer of people from sheltered workshops to community-based day or employment programs. So, even while the language in one line item has appeared to protect the workshops for those who want to remain in them, the other line item has funded the removal from the workshops of everyone whose guardians haven’t formally objected to moving them to the day programs.
Sheltered workshops around the country have become an ideological target of the federal government and of many states, which contend that the workshops “segregate” people with developmental disabilities from their peers in the mainstream workforce. But many families of the sheltered workshop participants have countered that the programs are fully integrated into the surrounding communities and provide the participants with meaningful activities and valuable skills.
Sheltered workshops provide developmentally disabled persons with a range of assembly jobs and other types of work, usually for a small wage.
In 2013, the Massachusetts DDS and the state’s major lobbying organizations for corporate DDS providers issued a plan to close all sheltered workshops as of last June, and to transfer all of the participants to either DDS day programs or to “integrated individual or group employment at minimum wage or higher.”
Sheltered workshops are defined by the Social Security Administration as “a private non-profit, state, or local government institution that provides employment opportunities for individuals who are developmentally, physically, or mentally impaired, to prepare for gainful work in the general economy. These services may include physical rehabilitation, training in basic work and life skills…”
Integrated employment is defined by the federal Labor Department as “jobs held by people with disabilities in typical workplace settings where the majority of persons employed are not persons with disabilities, where they earn at least minimum wage, and where they are paid directly by the employer.”
Our concern regarding the DDS/corporate provider plan to close sheltered workshops is that there appears to be a limited number of opportunities in Massachusetts for persons with developmental disabilities to find jobs in “typical workplace settings” where the majority of the people employed are not disabled. Unless and until these integrated workforce opportunities exist in sufficient quantities, we don’t think sheltered workshops should be eliminated as options.
Unfortunately, the state’s attitude concerning care for the developmentally disabled has long been to close facilities that are considered expensive or that otherwise don’t fit an ideological mold, without having a plan or sufficient resources to adequately replace those facilities.
The director of one sheltered workshop program I talked to said that while there hasn’t actually been a directive from DDS to transfer everyone out of his workshop by a particular date, DDS recently indicated that transfer funding had become available and that his workshop should “determine who would move at this time.”
The workshop director said he planned to transfer more than half of the program’s current participants out between next month and March of next year. While the protective language in the budget would appear to allow the guardians of the workshop participants to object to the transfer plans, the workshop director said no one had yet voiced an objection. It’s possible, he said, that people will begin to object once the transfers start. But he said he sensed less resistance among families and guardians to the prospect of leaving his workshop program than was the case two years ago.
One of the existing integrated work settings in Massachusetts is MicroTek in Chicopee, an electronic cable manufacturer. The company employs 130 people, 15 of whom have disabilities, according to Cynthia Piechota, the company’s program director. Piechota said she knew of only a handful of other integrated work programs in the state.
A workplace program that is smaller than MicroTek, but similar to it, is Interface Precision Benchmarks (IPB) in Orange, where six people are employed in manufacturing electronic cables. The IPB workforce is currently divided evenly between disabled and nondisabled employees (3 disabled and 3 nondisabled); thus it’s not clear that IPB actually fits the Labor Department’s definition of an integrated workplace.
Ed Orzechowski, whose sister-in-law, Carol Chunglo recently retired as an IPB employee, said he and his wife, Gail, “can’t say enough about what a positive experience it was for Carol to work at IPB. There should be more places like it.” Ed Orzechowski is a COFAR Board member and president of The Advocacy Network, an affiliated advocacy organization for people with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts.
A University of Massachusetts report noted that in 2010, there were 3,700 people with intellectual disabilities in sheltered workshops in Massachusetts and about 3,500 people in “integrated employment.” However, there were about 9,500 people in “non-work” settings, which appear to include DDS day programs.
COFAR has filed a Public Records Law request with DDS to try to determine how many people the Department anticipates will be transferred over the next five years to integrated workplaces, and how many will be transferred over that time to DDS day programs.
It’s unfortunate that sheltered workshops appear to be going the way of so many other previous high-quality programs and services for people with developmental disabilities in Massachusetts. The potential elimination of these services is usually vigorously opposed by families and guardians who understand how critically important they are. But DDS has long perfected a wait-them-out strategy.
The Department understands that grassroots resistance to new, untried policies, can be worn down over time.