workshop pic


In my ongoing rant about the shifting tide for sheltered workshops, here’s the next question:

Does the mere existence of the sheltered workshop format limit options for those who will be better served by broader opportunities within the community?

Yes, it appears to be the case. I can literally hear in my mind the conversation–“Why do you (company) not employ those who are differently abled?” and the Dickens’ reply comes, “Are there not sheltered workshops? Institutions? Places for these people to be held?” Is it possible that as long as there are places considered to be charity for those of varied abilities, businesses will keep their doors (and minds) shut? And worse, are the schools only preparing our children with different abilities for this inevitability instead of for jobs that may be better suited to the individual? Well, this may be two separate issues that have collided. Let’s start with the latter.

I do believe the educational system has programmed itself to preparing our children with limited options in mind. Instead of assuming competence and work within the community, often the workshop model is presented to families as Plan A. Kind of a “best you can hope for” concept. And this is certainly not always true. Now, finding a job fit is hard for everyone. Just ask any of the several unemployed friends I have right now.

However, in the hopes of moving more options forward, yesterday the news released that Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, enforcing that people just out of school and under the age of 24 *are not allowed* (except under very specific circumstances) to transition directly into Sheltered Workshop programs.

This, I believe, has been enacted with the intention of forcing a change in the mindset of our educators. And I support that change. However, it should also be mentioned that this makes using sheltered workshops as a transitional and training service impossible, and that, again, limits the options of those who need job support.

It seems to me, when I was a kid, people were always asking, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Shouldn’t we be asking every child this question and gear their goals to that end? I get it, not everyone can become a doctor, but nearly everyone can help people, if that is there ambition, right? Not everyone can become an astrologist, but nearly everyone could help in the Planetarium in some way.

Plus humans, who want to, never stop learning. There are clubs, community classrooms, and online groups for every imaginable interest and hobby. I wish that schools would better empower children, young adults, and their families to connect with the variety of resources for integrating into the community with every interest. When a sheltered workshop is the best option, and it is for some, then it can also be only one part of living a fulfilled life.

I’d venture to say most people don’t make a living out of what was their childhood passion, instead they race cars on weekends, do art in a community center, or spend their “spare time” helping families who may need a hand. Does this sound like a contradiction to my original point in this section? Which was…what? I remember! The original point (of this section) is that the schools need to be teaching and transitioning young adults not to limit themselves but to reach their potential. (The intention of the nationally mandated changes set forth by the CMS as well.)

But how does this look in real life? It should look like, if a student wants to help and work with people, maybe train them for a hospital job or volunteer placement. Marcus has a good friend with Down syndrome who loves to work in bars. He’s a good worker; it’s what he does. Excellent.

marcus at workMarcus has skills that allowed him to work independently with supervision in a production environment. He also has creative energy and mad story-telling skills, so he works with me to create these stories into books and plays and we are learning together how to share these. Is this second skill marketable? We’ll see. But there’s no reason not to try. But as far as getting Marcus a new placement in the “real” workforce, that brings us to the next challenge.


There are a few local restaurant and grocery stores that hire and work with people with different abilities openly and with dedication. But they are the exception. Currently the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is about 13%, according to the department of labor. Which makes it a skewed statistic to begin with, but I won’t go into all of that, I’ll leave it at it is a bit more than double the rate of people without a disability. I actually have no idea where people who work in sheltered workshops fall into this equation. Are they counted as employed? If the sheltered workshop closes, can they collect unemployment?  

What I do know is that businesses are hesitant to hire people who are differently abled. Why? Oh holy moly I can go on for days on why. Let’s boil it down to one thing: fear of complications. Let’s face it diverse populations complicate things. Everything. Can complications be good? YES, Absolutely. But – the fear is that these “complications” can be expensive, difficult, create or show new problems, and complications can be, well, complicated.

I was speaking to a businessman about the possibility of affirmative action for disabled workers and he claimed it wouldn’t work. Why?

“Well, because affirmative action was based on the fact that a woman, for example, can do the same job as a man. And it’s not true with people with disabilities.”

Internal Ugh. External, “Well, I think the idea is that yes, depending on the disability of the person, and the job applied for, given the chance, they can and will – in fact – do the job they are hired for.” Not to say that certain accommodations may not have to be made, ramps – for example. And sometimes, humans – otherwise known as employees, also have to be accepting of someone who is different working among them. This brings its own set of challenges that I will save for another day.

Now the government understands as well as anyone that marketing is key. So a few campaigns have already begun, including the Campaign for Disability Employment, among others, bringing on the Public Service Announcements and Toolkits. How much does this help? Too early to say I suppose…

So, in part one I told you Why (or really when) Sheltered Workshops Work and here, in part two, I shared what I hope will force positive changes in our educational system to give more people opportunities outside of the sheltered workshop format and also a glimpse into how it will require a change in the attitudes of businesses for this to work. But now, in Part Three of my rant: “What is The Answer to The Sheltered Workshop Question?”