Connections - 10.31.23

Shifting Away from Sheltered Workshops

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Originally founded in the 1950s, sheltered workshops came out of an era when care for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) meant sending a loved one to an institution. In the decades since their inception, they have evolved into places of steady employment for individuals with I/DD.

According to the Social Security Administration, “A sheltered workshop is a private nonprofit, state, or local government institution that provides employment opportunities for individuals who are developmentally, physically, or mentally impaired, to prepare for gainful work in the general economy.”

In recent years, however, sheltered workshops have come under scrutiny for the low wages they provide. Many sheltered workshops, in fact, pay below the minimum wage.

This, in turn, perpetuates economic inequality for individuals with I/DD, while also keeping alive the stigma that employers should have lower expectations for employees with I/DD. Due to the exceedingly low wages provided by sheltered workshops and the repercussions of these wages, many I/DD care experts now view these institutions as exploitative.

The question is: how do we move forward?

Alternative Employment Models

Several different models for I/DD employment assistance programs have been developed. In this article, we will cover two of the most prominent: Competitive Integrated Employment and Customized Employment.

Competitive Integrated Employment

Competitive Integrated Employment (CIE) offers both full- and part-time employment opportunities to individuals with disabilities. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, CIE environments:

  • Compensate employees at or above the minimum wage
  • Offer the same level of benefits to all employees
  • Provide workspaces where employees interact with others without disabilities who work in similar roles
  • Provide opportunities for advancement similar to those available to employees without disabilities

Proponents of this model say that the fair wages and opportunities for advancement provided by CIE help to increase the confidence, marketable skills, and financial stability of those with I/DD. These factors combined can also lead to better overall health.

Customized Employment

Customized Employment can help service providers fill some of the gaps left by supported employment and sheltered workshops. For job seekers, customized employment:

  • Offers individuals with disabilities the opportunity to receive paid employment in an integrated setting while showcasing their talents and abilities
  • Individualizes the process completely by focusing on the job seeker’s unique skills, ambitions, and personality
  • Eliminates the requirement for an employee with I/DD to perform every function of a traditional job, thereby opening new opportunities for individuals who might need varying levels of support

For service providers, Customized Employment:

  • Uses an evidence-based, customized strategy
  • Introduces new ways to reduce the unemployment rates of adults with I/DD
  • Works in any community setting — urban, suburban, or rural — when the right approaches are used
  • Enables the candidate’s interests, preferences, and talents to drive the process, not the labor market
  • Ensures successful employment by customizing the job before, not after, an individual is hired

Together, the CIE and Customized Employment models offer hope for more equitable employment practices.

Jordan Baker is the Content Marketing Manager at Relias.

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