Blogging Against Disablism Day 2014: Sheltered Workshops

Blogging Against Disableism Day (BADD) is upon us yet again, and I’m excited to see all the pieces about disability, the disabled experience, and the society we live in that will be flooding in over the course of the day from all over the world. I always encounter new people, new experiences, and thought-provoking comments that get me thinking about things from new perspectives and new angles on BADD. For people who are new to disability issues, I often recommend the BADD archives, because they can be incredibly valuable, and for those who aren’t, well, welcome to the advanced seminar.

BADD also falls, as I have noted in the past, on May Day, and as such, I make a point of discussing the intersection of disability and work on this day, because it’s an important intersection, and it’s often neglected. The labour movement can be exclusive (often without meaning to be), while the disability rights movement often isn’t heard on work-related issues — despite the long fight that ended in the ADA, and continuing battles over employment, disabled people are still discriminated against in the workplace and experience more hardship when it comes to getting, and keeping, jobs. This is one reason for the higher unemployment rate in the disabled community.

Many people have a false perception of disability, imagining it as a sort of ‘all or nothing’ sort of thing, and believing that impairments render people unable to work. Commonly, people assume that even if someone could technically work, she doesn’t want to — and that she can collect juicy disability payments from the government as long as she remains unemployed. These assumptions, however, are not true. Many disabled people can work, and want to work, and actually¬†need¬†to work, because, like nondisabled people, we sort of need to eat and pay rent and other such things, and contrary to expectations, disability cheques (when available) do not actually provide sufficient means to do that.

Historically, the attitude towards employment for people with moderate to severe impairments has been highly patronising. Disabled people were placed in ‘sheltered workshop’ environments, where they completed extremely simple, basic, repetitive, and often dull tasks for very low wages, and in some cases no wages at all. The argument in defense of sheltered workshops was that they provided a form of occupational therapy, gave disabled people something to do, and gave them a sense of value in their lives.

The disability rights movement has fought back long and hard against this model of employment. We resist the notion that some people should be paid less than others on the basis of disability status (a highly discriminatory pay scale like this is offensive and illegal), and we also resist the idea that disabled people should be isolated from society in sheltered workshop environments where they can’t interact with people or develop rich community ties. The pushback against sheltered workshops is part of the larger community-based living movement, which defends our right to live (and work) in communities, not institutional environments.

As it turns out, evidence suggests that being employed in sheltered workshops actually offers no real benefits; people with a history of working in sheltered workshops need to be ‘untrained‘ before they can enter the broader work force, for example. Meanwhile, many disability rights groups have pointed out that such environments, such as Goodwill Industries, pay disabled people pennies on the dollar and allow nondisabled officials higher up in the organisation to profit from their labour. Frustratingly, federal benefits aimed at helped disabled people participate in the workforce often end up with sheltered workshops, in direct opposition to mandates to support community-based living. Thanks to the highly active Obama Administration, the DOJ has taken a closer look at sheltered workshops over the last two years, and it appears poised to pressure state agencies to focus on community-supported living, which includes community-supported employment.

Such agencies often argue that sheltered workshops are necessary because people with severe impairments need aides for support, often in a way that suggests these disabled people can’t engage with society or aren’t full human beings. In community-supported employment, disabled people fill job positions in the community, and their aides work with them in programmes funded by regional agencies. Such programmes have shown clear benefits for employers and disabled people alike — they make people more independent, help people develop life skills, and connect disabled people with their communities. Additionally, seeing disabled people working and interacting with the community on a daily basis tackles ableism and hateful attitudes about disability, as observers are forced to reevaluate their attitudes and beliefs in the face of encounters with real human beings.

Such employment offers more benefits in the long term, actually complies with laws regarding work benefits for disabled workers, and offers disabled people an opportunity at dignity and respect.

As I reflect on labour issues this May Day, I seethe on behalf of my disabled siblings working for far less than minimum wage in degrading and sometimes dangerous conditions. They, too, deserve justice, and they, too, are part of the growing class war — because structural systems used to keep them poor are the same systems used to induce poverty in society in general. Sadly, misinformation about benefits has fed confusion and resentment surrounding disabled people, with nondisabled members of the public mistakenly under the belief that being disabled confers special treatment or provides one with a monstrous government stipend. Nothing could be further from the truth: disabled people with moderate to severe impairments are often exploited in sheltered workshops, or they’re kept in a degrading state of poverty by their ‘benefits,’ which don’t cover basic needs.