Disabled workers paid sub-minimum wages in sheltered  workshops

When I was young – until about eleven years old – I was labeled with what was then called “mental retardation.” Additionally, I have cerebral palsy. The label “mental retardation” is now called “intellectual disability” by socially sensitive and progressive folks.

During this early period of my development I was in and out of foster care. I came from a working-class family. My birth parents were barely able to support our family, let alone a child with a physical disability. Through the foster care system, I was put into what amounts to a day institution, not a school – though it disguised itself as one.

In this place, I received intensive physical and occupational therapy, as well as training for my future, which was pre-determined to be a “sheltered workshop” environment.

Very little attention, if any, was given to the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. My life remained patterned – five days a week in the institution, where I learned to fold paper and put the paper into envelopes or screw nuts into bolts. The weekends were spent relatively carefree, playing with my foster brothers and sisters or romping around the streets with my twin brother Eric and older brother Jay.

At the age of 11, my pattern was positively, permanently interrupted when I was adopted by a middle-class family from the state of West Virginia. My adoption resulted in my eventual university training as an artist and advanced training as a community organizer.

My adopted parents observed me. They saw my capabilities, not just from a surface perspective. They saw my deeper possibilities! Unfortunately, thousands of individuals with disabilities don’t get the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with.

Whether wards of the state or members of an all-American family, people with intellectual or physical disabilities are often working in “sheltered workshops” across this nation for sub-minimum wage. I would even argue that a lot of these working folks aren’t even challenged by the work they’ve been tasked with.

On top of the degrading sub-minimum wage and unchallenging, repetitive work, these folks when they reach retirement age often only receive their Social Security benefits – some after giving 30 years to a “sheltered workshop” environment.

My partners’ uncle passed away this past year. He had Down’s Syndrome. Dennis loved his work at the workshop. His family – an immigrant family, only a few generations in the United States – found great pride in being able to say Dennis “worked.” In writing this article, I am attempting to honor Dennis’ work life the way his “sheltered workshop” never did, as upon his “retirement” he only received a piece of paper, an acknowledgment of “completing his training.” After 30 years, just a piece of paper. No retirement benefits.

Dennis, and thousands like him, put together the small parts that make your vacuum cleaner or fold the balloons that you buy for your child’s birthday. These workers with developmental disabilities are deeply connected to your everyday interaction in the world. They deserve recognition as workers.

How is it possible that a person like Dennis could legally only be paid ten-cents on the hour? The systems that control these “sheltered workshops” cleverly call what Dennis did for 30 years “on-the-job-training.” Therefore, they don’t have to follow the same state or federal mandates regarding employment.

I’ve been in many states that hold the “sheltered workshop” system up as examples of engaging folks with disabilities in meaningful employment. Dennis got a lot out his job. He enjoyed it. He loved it. I’m not arguing that workshops aren’t beneficial or don’t provide opportunities for employment of people with disabilities.

However, let’s be honest. Let’s be real. It’s wage slavery. It is crass exploitation. I believe we should call it what it is. A “sheltered workshop” is no different than a sweatshop, especially if they don’t honor the worker with a living wage and retirement security.

Let’s honor all workers with a fair wage. Let’s put disabled and non-disabled workers on the same workshop floors and develop an honorable, respectable pay scale and pension system or retirement plan that takes into account our desire to live in a just, fair and equal society, not one of exploitation.

For all workers like Dennis – a man who loved his job, his family and his fellow workers – let’s make sure all work is valued by reforming the “sheltered workshop” system.

Photo: Matt Rourke/AP