Governmentally Discriminated Against — Workshops for the Disabled Slated to Close

By N. Fisher

Last year the Department of Education entered this statement into the Federal Register:

“People with disabilities represent a vital and integral part of our society, and we are committed to ensuring that individuals with disabilities have opportunities to compete for and enjoy high quality employment…” (80 FR 21059, April 2015)

Why then is the government eliminating jobs for hundreds of thousands of disabled persons? Why force thousands of disabled employment centers – called “Sheltered Workshops” – to close down? Why ruin an arrangement that has provided the Intellectually or Developmentally Disabled (ID/D) with opportunity, with community, with a sense of personal accomplishment and self-worth?

Sheltered Workshops are a cooperative effort between private industry and government services where disabled persons who are unprepared, or unable to work in standard jobs can perform actual contract work and receive compensation at below minimum wage. They have been operating for decades and most have worked well for those hundreds of thousands of disabled adults across the nation.

But in preparing their report on the new minimum wage, President Obama’s advisors did a great disservice to the disabled. His advisors either neglected to research all ramifications, specifically the disabled in their Sheltered Workshops, or they simply just didn’t care when they set their report in front of the president and he signed Executive Order #EO13658 on February 12, 2014, mandating that a $10.10 minimum wage be paid by Federal Contractors to all workers. MediCare is a Federal Contractor who funds the workshops.

That Executive Order (see link #1) caused Medicare to stop funding Sheltered Workshops. To compound the problem, by having to stay in compliance with that Federal ruling, and unable to support the Workshops by themselves, Regional Centers across the Nation informed their workshops that all their disabled workers had to be paid $10.10 an hour. With the lack of Federal funding, because they couldn’t comply to the new wage, all workshops will be closed or turned into training facilities for workers in an effort to move them into the community. Staff at workshops said that roughly 70% of the disabled in these Workshops will lose their jobs – be cast aside because they are less capable.

The more severely disabled in Sheltered Workshops have been productive all these years, functioning at their own pace on jobs provided by understanding outside contractors. Contractors are aware that the workers are disabled and adjust their business operations to accommodate their limitations. They also know their contracts will be done properly and always come in on schedule.

These are not sweat shops. Trained, concerned staff  attend the disabled, never overwork them. Some employed in these workshops have low cognitive abilities; others have bad seizures, autism, aphasia, cerebral palsy – many have debilitating combinations. And no, these special people cannot keep up and function at a higher pace. And many can’t function in outside jobs because they require too many healthcare and personal services that outside employers can’t provide.

The Sheltered Workshop environment addresses their special needs and limitations and the workers feel safe from the stares, snide remarks and cruelty so common in the world at large. In addition to real compensation for actual work, the disabled garnered a sense of camaraderie and community.

Title I of the Americans with Disability Act, used to ensure access to work opportunities for all the disabled. But a new mandate for Workshops is that both employing ID/D people in special-service Workshops and compensating them at less than the prevailing minimum wage were discriminatory practices. This new-mandated goal is to transition ID/D workers out of the Workshops and into the standard workforce. Therefore, under the new guidelines only those individuals capable of being trained for work in the “outside” world can remain employed. The government has decided to eliminate the chance for the more severely disabled to work at all if they cannot make it in the workforce at large. And, as I stated, the majority of people in the Workshops cannot meet those demands.

Closures began over two years ago.  Concerned parties had to find out on the internet because nothing was mentioned in the traditional press. Staff at Workshops in California were given two months notice, “Change your rate of pay or close.” Some were only able to give 30 days notice of closure to workers, their caregivers and families, leaving everyone to scramble.  This move abandons the disabled to endless days watching TV when they had once been useful and employed. Apparently no one in government office or the relevant agencies considered what would happen to all those being cast aside by the closures.

So the Executive Order, in order to protect 30% of ID/D workers from undue discrimination, is discriminating by edict against the 70% who cannot compete without special assistance. In 2015, the Dept. of Labor estimated there were 450,000 disabled workers in Sheltered Workshop. That means roughly 325,000 disabled people will now be purposely prevented from having a job (see 5th link below).

Instead of helping this Federal ruling has created a nationwide disaster for those hundreds of thousands, their families, caregivers, and the staff who had dedicated their lives to helping their workers.  Most will lose their jobs while most of the families are not equipped to care for their loved ones 24/7. For those in board and care facilities, the caregivers are not venued for 24/7 care.

The government’s action seems arbitrary, almost cruel – and that is precisely how the 70% and their families feel. I know this, because my own adult daughter is intellectually disabled, and has worked in a Sheltered Workshop, and made friends, over twenty years. Most of these individuals are being let go, unable to meet the “outside work” requirement. They will be without a job, without prospects, without extra income and without the comfortable camaraderie that makes their difficult lives more rewarding. If they are lucky they will be able to attend a day care to fill empty hours with art and jigsaw puzzles, and receive no pay.

Staff have told me their workers love their jobs. Also they’re reliable and dedicated and develop a feeling of self-worth and pride in getting paid for their work.  They want their life to have purpose, to have meaning. Without that, they will have nothing.

These are not throw-away people. They deserve the chance to share in the sense of accomplishment that gainful work provides. Now they are being forced from their safe environment, and left with no way to earn extra money for movies, buying a special T-shirt, or even a hamburger. Their monthly disability stipends cover basic needs such as board and care, bus fare, telephone, some medications, soap and shampoo…. Precious little is left over.

Sadly, it is too late to stop these closures. But there’s still hope if we voice our concerns for the disabled by writing/calling our local representatives, by attending meetings to seek alternatives. There are meetings taking place at the Workshops, and the more voices heard the better our chance to end this discrimination and recognize the worth of disabled individuals.

Sheltered Workshops were a success. Closing them is a step backwards and a disgrace.

For more information:

President Obama signs $10.10 min. wage [Search domain]

Excellent recent discussion of the issues by a 40-year Professional:

Lawsuit challenging CA reducing support:

2013 discussion of reasons/results:

Oregon forced to favor “integrated setting”, eliminates workshop employment…

Oregon lost, is closing workshops

California DHHS Blueprint for Competitive Integrated Employment:

Advisory Committee on Increasing Competitive Integrated Employment:

Committee’s Interim report, Sept. 2015:

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), also, A Guide to Disability Rights Laws[Search domain]

Google, or duckduckgo: ”Closure of Sheltered Workshops” & “Sheltered Workshops Closing”


Ms. Fisher often connects with disabled advocates and organizations, visits Sheltered Workshops and speaks with related State, and Federal offices. For more information or to join her in efforts on behalf of the Disabled, contact her at: [email protected]


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