Home > Uncategorized > A disappointing update on sheltered workshops in Massachusetts

A disappointing update on sheltered workshops in Massachusetts

In a post the other day, I suggested that state Department of Developmental Services Commissioner Elin Howe talk to family members of sheltered workshop participants, who maintain the programs have provided their loved ones with valuable social and skill-building activities.

But no such luck.

In an email notice send out yesterday, Howe announced that no new DDS clients will be referred to sheltered workshops in Massachusetts after January 1.  As we feared, this is the beginning of the end of this valuable program in the state.

Sheltered workshops provide opportunities for developmentally disabled people to do assembly work and other tasks in group settings, usually for small amounts of pay.  But for Commissioner Howe and other opponents of sheltered workshops, these programs are politically incorrect.   Sheltered workshops, they argue, “segregate” disabled people from their non-disabled peers, apparently in just the same way schools and businesses in the South segregated blacks in the days before the Civil Rights movement.

Howe said sheltered workshop providers have been instructed to develop plans to “transition their workshop services to more integrated employment options,” meaning the plan is to place all workshop participants in the mainstream workforce.

Let’s leave aside the question whether it is really valid or fair to compare intellectually disabled people, whose guardians voluntarily place them in programs that provide them with work activities, to blacks who were forced until the 1960’s in this country to drink at separate water fountains and go to separate schools from whites.

For now, I would simply argue that we’re skeptical that closing programs that provide work activities for people with developmental services will somehow increase their overall employment opportunities.

I wonder if Commissioner Howe has thoroughly reviewed a 2011 report by the University of Massachusetts Boston on trends in employment prospects for people with developmental disabilities.

While the UMass report does appear to be biased against sheltered workshops, it notes that there has been relatively little movement so far toward mainstream employment of people with intellectual disabilities from sheltered workshops around the country.  The report cites as reasons for this lack of movement, “staff resistance, family resistance, and funding structures that do not adequately support community-based services for people with high support needs.”

In other words, families like and want their loved ones to stay in sheltered workshops; and it takes money to place people with Intellectual and developmental disabilities into mainstream jobs with the types of supervision and support they need.  And we’ve seen, that money isn’t there.  All of this seems to raise questions about the wisdom of DDS’s decision to stop all new referrals to sheltered workshops.

In fact, one of the outcomes of closing sheltered workshops, which appears to be highlighted in the UMass report, is that many, if not most, of the people who are participating in sheltered workshops will end up being transferred to what are called “non-work” settings if those workshops are closed.  Non-work settings, also known as day programs for people with developmental disabilities, may or may not provide them with meaningful work activities to do.

The UMass report noted that in 2010, there were 3,700 people with Intellectual disabilities in sheltered workshops in Massachusetts and about 3,500 people in “integrated employment.” However, there were about 9,500 people in “non-work” settings.   The report stated that: “State, county, and local IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities) dollars are increasingly being spent on CBNW (Community-based Non-Work) services and not integrated employment.”

So, our concern is that when all sheltered workshop programs are ultimately closed in Massachusetts, most of the former participants will end up in day programs where they do nothing and get no pay at all.  And even if many of these people are placed in so-called integrated employment, the outcomes may not all be good.  Howe certainly didn’t consult the Buonomo’s about their son’s disappointing experience working at Walmart, for instance.

Given all that, it was amusing to read in her email that Howe remains “strongly committed to working with all of our stakeholders” in ultimately closing all remaining sheltered workshops in the state.  I don’t recall her asking for our opinion on it or acknowledging the opinions of most family members of sheltered workshop participants.

  1. Anonymous
    October 4, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Sadly the care for our developmentally disabled is moving backwards. The assignment of Judge Joseph Tauro to the Ricci case was truly advantageous to all clients that were living in institutions. Because of him people inflicted with this terrible disability had a chance for a better life and care that they deserved. It would not only benefit all clients in institutions but would guarantee protection for all future clients.
    We seem to be headed back to the days of merciless decision making by our politicians and department heads.
    Judge Tauro saved many lives and became a voice for all those that could not speak up for themselves.
    As a mother of a son with IDD I am worried sick about his future. With the closures of the state facilities, the constant cutting budget items for their care and the lack of compassion from all involved I see a very dismal future for all of them.
    The only difference will be…instead of being warehoused in large institutions they will be housed in group homes with the same conditions they endured before the Ricci case.
    Shame on all involved in these heartless decisions.


  2. October 5, 2013 at 12:56 am

    This is more than disappointing to me; it is very, very upsetting. My uncle has been involved in sheltered workshops since entering the DMR/DDS system in 1969. For almost all of those years, he has participated in workshop programs. He enjoyed mingling with his peers at “work” and gained skills (using a jig, counting to 10 to assure he put the correct number of items in the container he was assigned to fill, using a paper shredder, stuffing envelopes) through his job. More recently, he learned how to print the first letter of his name and is working on learning the second—a skill he learned because at the end of each week he is expected to “sign his paycheck.” He takes pride in using his “own money” to buy snacks or small items when taken on shopping trips. It is unconscionable to me that the state, after forcing him out of his home of 30 years may now take away his job, too! I also shop at a grocery that used to frequently have developmentally delayed clients working as “baggers”, sometimes alone & sometimes under the 1:1 supervision of a DDS employee. On several occasions, I saw the DDS clients become upset due the pace of the job, an error (such as dropping a bottle) or an impatient or rude customer. Some refused to finish their jobs or became physically agitated (pacing, waving their arms, running away and hiding their face against a wall), verbally upset or tearful. Sometimes the DDS job advocate was able to calm them down and deescalate the situation; at other times they were unsuccessful or didn’t even try. I would not want my uncle in this situation—though he wouldn’t even be capable of attempting such a job as his cognitive limitations wouldn’t allow him to fill the bags properly (ie. taking into account the shape & weight of items, separating cold ice cream from hot rotisserie chicken, etc.) and his mobility (wheelchair bound) would also be a barrier to doing the job comfortably. Where he works now, he work then return to his room for a nap and then work again later in the day—the job is designed to meet his needs, utilize his skills, develop his potential and permit socialization. While it is always nice to meet diverse people, most of us choose to socialize most regularly with our peers. The clients and residents in DDS facilities experience diversity in terms of age, race, cognitive and physical ability within their families/friends/visitors, caregivers, housemates and coworkers already. Why does the state insist on taking them from a situation and setting where they are comfortable and happy and forcing them into unfamiliar and often stressful situations? While I enjoy meeting all kinds of people and spending enough time with them to be exposed to new things, I would not enjoy being regularly plopped into a convention of astrophysicists, nor into a group of teen skateboarders as I am not knowledgeable at math or physics and not physically capable of skateboarding. I would have little in common to discuss with these people. I enjoy spending the bulk of my time around people with similar abilities and interests as my own where I feel like I can contribute something to the social exchange and participate in activities. Forcing my uncle into an integrated employment setting would be like plopping me in the astrophysicists’ conference or skateboarding exhibition. It would be forcing him into an environment where he can’t contribute or participate. If an integrated setting is beyond his ability and a sheltered environment is no longer available, what WILL be available to my uncle? Isolation and boredom? How would Commissioner Howe and other proponents of this plan like it if I told her she can’t interact with her peers, that I’m choosing her coworkers, associates and friends now out of concern that she be “more rounded/integrated into the larger community? No very much, I suspect.


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