The Center for An Accessible Society Disability Issues Information









Disabled workers deserve real choices, real jobs

By Steven J. Taylor

Labor Day, 2002 -- Labor Day is traditionally an occasion for celebrating the American worker and, by implication, the value of work. Unfortunately, people with disabilities of working age don't have much to celebrate.

Not so long ago, work wasn't even a possibility. People with developmental disabilities and their families had two options: stay home or go into an institution. For adults with disabilities living alone or with their families, sheltered workshops emerged in the '50s and '60s as an opportunity to get out of the house and to have something to do during the day.

Much has changed. With the passage of P.L. 94-142 -- now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- children with disabilities were guaranteed the right to a free, appropriate public education. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and then the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities. Federal and state vocational rehabilitation programs have been established to help people with disabilities enter the work force. Work incentives have been created for beneficiaries of federal disability benefits, and tax credits and deductions have been developed to encourage employers to hire people with disabilities.

Most significantly, attitudes toward people with disabilities have begun to change. To be sure, prejudice and discrimination are still directed toward disabled people. Yet, as a community and society, we are learning that people with disabilities do not need to be put away or segregated and "sheltered" from society. We are also learning that our communities, neighborhoods, schools, and work places are enriched by the presence and participation of people with disabilities.

It's time to consign sheltered workshops to history. The case against them is strong, not merely on philosophical grounds, but pragmatic ones as well.

Low pay. A 1998 national report indicated that sheltered workshop clients earned an average of $65 per week, while rehabilitation clients working in the competitive labor market earned an average $272. Even for people with severe mental retardation, earnings are significantly higher in competitive employment. Workshop clients earned a weekly average of $37, and workers in competitive employment made $110.

Dead-end placement. Supporters often defend sheltered workshops as a "transitional step" to prepare people to enter the competitive work force. Studies have consistently shown that segregated environments do not prepare people to live, work, or participate in integrated environments. A mere 3.5% of people in sheltered workshops move into competitive employment in a given year. This is one reason why the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration ruled in January 2001 that sheltered workshop placement would no longer qualify as an accepted employment outcome.

Incentive to keep the most productive clients. Sheltered workshops receive funding from a combination of public vocational and rehabilitation programs and contracts from businesses. Like any enterprise, workshops need to provide products of high quality to survive and continue to receive contracts. Workshops have a built-in incentive to retain the most productive and dependable clients. These are precisely the persons most likely to succeed in the competitive labor market, with the fewest supports.

Study after study has shown that people with severe disabilities can thrive in regular employment, given the proper supports. The problem is that the bulk of public funds continue to be channeled into sheltered workshops and other segregated facilities. In 1996, the Arc of the United States recommended, "Federal and state policy shall establish as a workforce development priority, employment of people with mental retardation in competitive settings with supports as necessary."

Ironically, sheltered workshops seldom have served people with the most severe disabilities. These people are deemed unproductive and unlikely to help them fulfill their contract work.

There is no question that people with disabilities can be productive and dependable workers. I am sure that many clients at sheltered workshops are proud of their work. But wouldn't those clients be prouder if they knew that they could perform their skills in real places of employment and be included and accepted into the regular work force -- just like anyone else? And wouldn't those businesses and places of employment be enriched by having workers with disabilities on-site, rather than out of sight?

The success of supported work and school-to-work transition programs demonstrate that people with disabilities do not need to be placed in sheltered facilities. Sheltered workshops need to be phased out of existence.

Steven J. Taylor, Ph.D. is Director of the Center on Human Policy at Syracuse University. His e-mail address is










Read the EEOC's Primer for Small Business on complying with the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act




Expert sources

Disabled People Start Own Businesses: Study

About The Center for An Accessible Society