The establishment and use of “Sheltered Workshops” for people with severe intellectual and developmental disabilities is on the wane and has disappeared completely in many parts of the country.
The original concept was to create a separate environment for these individuals in which they would receive “below-minimum” wages, but would work in an environment in which they would be supervised by professionals who were trained in the needs of people with overt disabilities. In addition to employing workers at sub-minimum wages, the environment was often a segregated setting, exclusively designed for those with severe disabilities.
Over time, there was an outcry by advocates, declaring sheltered workshops as exploitive, and citing the lack of integration with non-disabled workers. Supported employment has experienced less criticism. Supported employment is an environment in which workers with significant intellectual disabilities would receive the support of job coaches with programs and assistance designed to make them successful in an integrated (with non-disabled peers) setting.
The criticism regarding sub-minimum wages and the lack of integration with non-disabled peers are legitimate concerns. Nevertheless, the economic crisis has made jobs less available for many non-disabled workers and non-existent for intellectually challenged individuals. In the current environment, people with overt disabilities are without long-term housing, appropriate medical services, and regular socialization. What many term a “radical solution” may be the only alternative to these individuals becoming truly abandoned members of our society.
The criticism against sheltered workshops has been that, in addition to providing wages that are sub-minimum and thus exploiting workers, no real vocational skills are learned except simple, mundane procedures that are repeated over and over. However, one must remember that many jobs were created for non-disabled workers during the 1920s and 1930s by the creation of the “assembly line.” which was the execution of simple, mundane procedures that were repeated over and over.
With the State developmental centers facing political and functional oblivion, many individuals with overt disabilities will be transferred to the community, ostensibly without appropriate support. Yet, sheltered workshops may not only provide a wage, but professional supervision, as well.
Over the past 100 years, radical programs emerged for the severely disabled when these individuals were rejected by the rest of society. One such program originated in the 1960s in Canada and France.