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Sheltered workshops under fire in Massachusetts

Paul Buonomo enjoys his job stuffing envelopes, collating papers and carrying out other tasks in a program in Danvers known as a sheltered workshop.

His parents, Doris and Joe Buonomo, maintain that the workshop, run by Heritage Industries, is the best such program Paul has ever been in.

But in the wake of a national debate over the political correctness of sheltered workshop programs for people with developmental disabilities, programs such as Paul’s may soon be phased out.  Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Developmental Services is reviewing its policies regarding sheltered workshops and has invited state-funded providers into a working group to determine what the future will be for the programs.

Sheltered workshops provide opportunities for developmentally disabled people to do assembly work and other tasks, usually for a small amount of pay, in group settings.  The charge of political incorrectness stems from the fact that the workers are not participating in the nation’s mainstream workforce and are therefore allegedly being “segregated” from non-disabled people.  In many – perhaps in most – cases they also receive sub-minimum wages.

The charge that sheltered workshops promote segregation and inadequate pay to disabled people is being leveled not only by a number of advocacy groups, but by government agencies, including the federal Department of Justice and the National Council on Disability.

These are the same advocates and agencies, by the way, that have long opposed all forms of congregate care for the developmentally disabled.

But supporters of sheltered workshops, many of whom are family members of the workshop participants, argue that these programs provide their loved ones with fulfilling work and skill-building activities, and that if the programs were eliminated, there would often be nothing to take their place.

The Buonomos, for example, don’t believe their son, who is 60 and has moderate intellectual disability, is at all segregated or placed at a disadvantage because he isn’t receiving a competitive wage in a mainstream workforce setting.  Heritage Industries provides Paul with a check every two weeks that varies from $2 to $10, depending on the amount of work Paul does, according to Joe Buonomo.  It’s not much money, Joe says, but Paul lives in a state-operated group home and doesn’t personally have to deal with financial pressures that would necessitate a job paying a competitive wage.

Gail Orzechowski, whose sister, Carol Chunglo, 73, participates in a sheltered workshop in Orange operated by Interface Precision Benchworks, maintains that the program has “opened up her (Carol’s) world.  I don’t know how they can say she’s segregated,” she adds.

The  Arc of Massachusetts has stated that the impetus in Massachusetts to reconsider its sheltered workshop policies stems from litigation in Rhode Island and Oregon, which has involved the Justice Department.

In the Rhode Island case, a service provider was accused of improperly “segregating” developmentally disabled persons in a sheltered workshop and paying them sub-minimum wages.  Under a settlement of the case, clients in sheltered workshops will be switched to supervised mainstream employment, which implies the end of sheltered workshops in that state.

Following the June settlement in Rhode Island, a Department of Justice official maintained that from that point on, every developmentally disabled client in the state’s sheltered workshops would receive “real jobs with real wages,” and would no longer be subject to “the tyranny of segregation.”

It’s not quite clear to us, though, how providing real jobs at real wages to all disabled people will actually happen.  Like the Buonomos and Gail Orzechowski, we also don’t buy the charge of segregation when it comes sheltered workshops, in particular.   Doris Buonomo says she hopes DDS will listen to outside voices, particularly those of parents like her and her husband Joe, who believe the workshops have made a positive difference in their loved ones’ lives.  Thurs far, we have heard only that DDS has invited the Massachusetts Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers and the Massachusetts Arc to participate in the working group that is reviewing the Department’s sheltered workshop policies.  Both of those organizations have taken positions against the workshops (here and here).

Meanwhile, family members and other supporters of sheltered workshops around the country are fighting the tide of closures of sheltered workshop programs.  They contend the Justice Department and other opponents of the workshops are fighting an ideological war, but are offering no viable alternatives.

In New Jersey, the state Legislature stepped in this summer to prevent a plan by the state to close the state’s sheltered workshops.  The New Jersey plan to defund the workshops met with opposition from advocates and from program participants and their families around the state, according to The Burlington County Times.

An online petition filed by Missouri AID, an advocacy organization for the intellectually disabled, states that sheltered workshops “are the only places where some individuals can work and function as productive members of the community.”  The petition, which garnered 3,092 signatures, adds that:

There are countless horror stories about individuals who have tried supported (mainstream) employment, and they fell in with the wrong group of individuals, were taken advantage of, sent to prison, or ended up walking the streets alone. Sheltered workshops throughout the U. S. provide a safe environment for adults with (intellectual and developmental disabilities) to work, interact with their peers, and gain a sense of accomplishment…

The Missouri AID petition adds that “We should be creating more employment opportunities for people with disabilities – not eliminating options.”

While the idea that people with developmental disabilities should work alongside non-disabled peers and earn competitive wages is good in theory, it doesn’t always work in practice, Doris Bunomo notes.  In Paul’s case, for instance, a job at Walmart ended badly for Paul even though he had gotten good performance evaluations there for a job stocking shelves, and had even earned a promotion.

Doris said Paul had been working at Walmart for a year, but an incident occurred one day in which he got “upset,” leading to a situation in which he was lectured by the manager and threatened with being fired.  Doris said a support staff person for Paul did not follow an agreed-upon protocol between the  residence and Walmart, and Paul did not work there again.  Doris maintains that many people with developmental disabilities can work in professional or business settings with careful supervision, but that is not always possible.

“I think he’s very pleased where he is,” Joe Buonomo says of his son, adding that while Paul primarily interacts with other developmentally disabled people in his sheltered workshop, there are many opportunities in his life to meet people who are not disabled.

”I don’t think he (Paul) feels restricted in any way,” Joe maintains.  In addition to the many community-based functions that Paul attends via his group home, he often helps Doris deliver books and other items to their local library and church.  Also, given Paul’s lifelong love of trains, his parents have also often taken him to the freight train terminal in South Portland, Maine, where he has “made a ton of friends with the workmen” over the years, Joe says.

Orzechowski says the workshop that employs her sister Carol has helped teach her how to function socially.  “Her eating habits and her other social habits have improved, and she’s developed friendships since she’s been in the program,” Orzechowski says of her sister, who she describes as having a severe level of intellectual disability.  Carol, she says, also has many opportunities to interact with people in the community, including vacations that she has taken with money earned from her workshop program.

It’s far from clear what may happen in Massachusetts regarding sheltered workshops.   We certainly hope that whatever is done, DDS will first consult with the families involved such as the Buonomos and Gail Orzechowski.  If DDS does listen to those people, the Department will find a way to keep these valuable sheltered workshop programs running.

  1. Marie Burchfield
    October 1, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    If the families of the workers are happy, and if the work is making the employee happy, then so called “caring agencies” should stay out of their lives, and their business.


  2. Gloria Medeiros
    October 4, 2013 at 1:44 pm

    What I don’t understand is how are they going to mainstream them into supervised mainstream employment, when there are not enough jobs for those that are not disabled–will the companies hire employees to work with them? Clearly they have no understanding of what they will be doing to those who are now in a sheltered workshop where they are safe, have wonderful friendships, and are accepted for who they are. This change would be very disruptive and cause emotional trauma for a vast majority of our loved ones.


  3. Anonymous
    October 29, 2013 at 7:54 pm

    I’m currently an non disabled employee at a sheltered workshop in Massachusetts. I think it’s very unrealistic of DDS to assume that all of these people can be mainstreamed. At this time jobs are few and far between. Not to mention that these individuals who are working in the sheltered work shops love their jobs and love the peers sitting beside them. It would be very devastating to take their jobs away to force them into volunteering which is what many of them will be doing. I’m all for community employment, however that option just doesn’t exist for many of them. DDS should absolutely give individuals with disabilities options but taking their options/choices away is wrong.


  4. Anonymous
    November 20, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    I also work as an employee at a sheltered workshop in MA. We treat our agency exactly like a business, requiring the program participants to come on on their scheduled days, call in sick, request vacation time in advance, listen to their supervisors and produce quality work. Everything that is expected of them at the workshop is what any employer would expect. There is VALUE in the work they do, the money they earn, the peers they associate with and the work skills they are aquiring – all of these things will transfer with them to a job in the community. Taking away spending money, pride in producing work and being a contributing member of society is a crime in my opinion. DDS, The Dept of Labor and The Dept of Justice are starting at the wrong end shutting down what is currently in place. They should be giving incentives and even mandating businesses to hire individuals with DD so that as a result workshops will naturally phase out because they will no longer serve a purpose.


  5. Anonymous
    March 12, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Has there been any information or guidelines from as to what constitutes a sheltered workshop in MA? For example, Goodwill Industries offers both day hab and vocational programs for people with disabilities. While the vocational part of sorting clothes is segregated only employing those with disabilities, it is a legitimate business and those workers are a valued part of the company. I am unaware if they get paid minimum wage or by piece work. Could that be the deciding factor?


  6. Megan
    March 12, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Has there been any information or guidelines from as to what constitutes a sheltered workshop in MA? For example, Goodwill Industries offers both day hab and vocational programs for people with disabilities. While the vocational part of sorting clothes is segregated only employing those with disabilities, it is a legitimate business and those workers are a valued part of the company. I am unaware if they get paid minimum wage or by piece work. Could that be the deciding factor?


  7. May 20, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    All of us need to write, advocate, and speak out against these efforts to shut down the sheltered workshops. Curtis Decker is behind a lot of this, of the National Disability Rights, and he answers to a board. It takes some digging but I am now engaged in e-mail dialog with the two board members nearest to my state. Do the same–get involved or the places where our loved ones happily work will be shut down.


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