I agree that those among us — including my daughter — with intellectual or developmental disabilities should be given the same right to a community-based job that any other worker has. Instead, many work in sheltered workshops and often are isolated from their enabled peers and stuck doing repetitive tasks, such as putting labels on bottles in a sheltered workshop.
Disability rights advocates and the federal government are pushing hard to close the workshops and move folks with I/DD into community-based jobs in what’s known as the Employment First model. But the model has problems of its own.
At least two studies, one from George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health and the other from a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Center for Outcome Analysis, paint a picture of the shift that’s less than rosy.
The George Washington University study looks at what’s happened in Maine since the state moved away from sheltered workshops beginning in 2002. The Center for Outcome Analysis has been gathering information in Oklahoma for at least 15 years, in part to try to answer the question of whether people there are doing better as a result of a similar shift.
Their studies reflect what’s gone on for some in Oregon, which is only beginning the process. Rockwest Training Company in Salem has had a sheltered workshop. Its representatives have discovered that it’s one thing to find a community-based job for someone with a disability. It can be something else entirely to ensure that the person both works roughly the same hours as before and makes at least as much, or more, money.
In Oklahoma and Maine, the number of people with I/DD who are working has declined in the years since the move to integration began. In Oklahoma, community-based jobs did not increase as the reliance on sheltered workshops fell. As a result, researchers believe, a large number of those with I/DD are simply unemployed; those working, meanwhile, spend about half as much time on the job as they did before.
And in Maine, there were also fewer people with I/DD working in integrated jobs in 2014 than there had been before the shift away from sheltered workshops began. Too, men and women with I/DD in that state work an average of 12 hours per week, the lowest rate in the United States. The drop in integrated jobs, by the way, is not limited to Maine or Oklahoma. Information from a national survey found a similar decline nationwide.
So what happens to people who used to work, if not 40 hours a week, at least 20 hours or more? Well, for one thing, their incomes drop. Even if they’re making minimum wage, a person whose work “week” has been cut from, say, four days to half a day a week, is almost sure to make less than before.
To help fill all that newfound free time, many spend their days receiving nonwork services, going on field trips to places they can interact with enabled people, volunteering, doing crafts and the like.
What a loss of dignity is likely to accompany the loss of much of a job and with it, a regular paycheck!
Those of us with a child or sibling or friend with I/DD know in ways most people don’t just how much cachet attaches to that piece of paper we receive regularly, often without giving it much thought. It is a sign not only of independence, but of being a functioning normal member of society, a key to a life just like that lived by everybody else.
In the end, it seems to me, that if society is determined to move to Employment First, as the movement’s called, it needs to keep in mind the beliefs of social scientist Donald Campbell, noted at the end of educator Scott Spreat’s article in the Social Innovations Journal’s report on the Oklahoma study: In the earliest days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Spreat writes, Campbell “argued that all social reforms should be treated as experiments and subjected to the same level of scientific rigor that was afforded to other forms of research.”
He goes on: “We have an ethical responsibility to ensure that our social reforms do in fact leave people better off. That is certainly the case for Employment First …”
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org.