Home > Uncategorized > Legislative report misses an opportunity on employment of the developmentally disabled

Legislative report misses an opportunity on employment of the developmentally disabled

Even before the COVID crisis, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in Massachusetts were facing daunting problems in finding meaningful opportunities for employment.

Ever since the closures of all remaining sheltered workshops in the state in 2016, hundreds if not thousands of clients of the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) have been left in DDS day programs with little or nothing to replace the work opportunities they previously had.

For a potentially significant number of DDS clients, mainstream work settings have never been a viable option. They aren’t able to function in those settings or don’t desire to do so.

But even for those people with I/DD who can function in mainstream settings, it has always been difficult to find jobs. Now with unemployment a major problem in the state as a whole due to the pandemic, competing for opportunities in that workforce is an even more daunting prospect for people with I/DD.

For those reasons, we were glad to see a legislative subcommittee undertake a review of the subject of employment of the disabled in Massachusetts, although we were somewhat skeptical that the review would be unbiased and thorough.

Unfortunately, our concerns appear to be well-founded based on the report that has now been released by the “Workability Subcommittee” of the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee. We think the Workability Subcommittee, which is headed by Representative Josh Cutler, missed a major opportunity to address the problems described above.

Report buys in to anti-congregate care ideology 

While Cutler’s 33-page report has some good recommendations regarding persons with disabilities in general, it unfortunately seems to have largely missed the challenges faced by people with I/DD.

A key reason for that is that the report subscribes to the ideology behind the privatization of DDS services and against congregate work programs for people with I/DD such as sheltered workshops. The report is a cheerleader for the view that everyone can function in the mainstream workforce, no matter what type or level of disability they have.

The report even termed the sheltered workshop closures “a necessary and important step.” Yet there is no supporting analysis behind that statement in the report.

That isn’t surprising given that the Arc of Massachusetts, a key opponent of sheltered workshops, played an “instrumental” role in assisting the Subcommittee in its work, according to the report’s acknowledgements.

What the closures of the workshops did was take away a choice that was available to people and their families and guardians to continue to participate in settings in which they were comfortable and could function.

There has been nothing adopted to replace that choice, and the report doesn’t offer anything.

Vague recommendation on accommodating those who can’t handle the mainstream workforce

In November 2019, Patty Garrity, a COFAR member, and I met with Rep. Cutler to discuss the employment problems noted above. Patty’s brother, Mark, is one of the former sheltered workshop participants who has been left with little or no meaningful work activities.

Cutler’s report does contain one mention and one recommendation regarding that concern.

Unfortunately, the report’s recommendation is overly vague. The recommendation states that the Legislature should ensure that providers “have the capacity to serve these individuals so they, in turn, can have meaningful work opportunities.”

That’s it. There is no specificity in the recommendation as to how those providers could or should serve those persons.

Even prior to COVID, Patty had to fight on a daily basis for activities for Mark in his day program after his sheltered workshop program closed. As Patty noted in a recent email conversation, Mark can’t handle mainstream settings.  He can’t meet productivity standards. He can’t even attend his day program right now because he doesn’t understand social distancing.

“At the moment,” Patty wrote, “I am back to visiting Mark through the window (of his group home), and everyday he will ask me, “work tomorrow?”

In our October 2019 testimony to the Subcommittee, we urged it to recognize that like Mark, not every DDS client is capable of or desires to participate in the mainstream workforce. We urged the Subcommittee to support H.88, a bill which would have required that meaningful work activities be provided in DDS community-based day programs.

But no mention is made in Cutler’s report of that bill or anything like it.

The language in the bill was subsequently removed by the Children and Families Committee and replaced with language establishing a Permanent Commission on the Status of Persons with Disabilities that Cutler’s Subcommittee recommended. Yet the Commission’s charge does not appear to include any effort to address the lack of work opportunities for people like Mark. 

No acknowledgement of the lack of work opportunities due to COVID pandemic

There is a lot of boosterism in the Subcommittee report regarding companies that have adopted hiring programs for persons with disabilities. But despite the delay in issuing the report until well into the COVID crisis, there is virtually no acknowledgement in it of the huge challenge the pandemic has posed to employment in general in the state.

As noted, if it was difficult for people with I/DD to get jobs pre-COVID, it is even more daunting now that thousands of people are out of work. You wouldn’t know that from reading the report, however.

The only employment stats mentioned in the report are from 2019 when the commonwealth’s average unemployment rate was 2.9%. There is no follow-up on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on that unemployment rate, which now stands at 7.4%.

This kind of incomplete analysis may be partly why the report fails to acknowledge the monumental difficulty of placing developmentally disabled persons in mainstream work settings, particularly now.

The report includes what the Subcommittee obviously considered hopeful numbers on mainstream or integrated employment of the disabled, again from 2019. But other than printing the numbers in a chart on Page 11, the report didn’t analyze them. Had the Subcommittee done so, it might not have characterized the numbers in such hopeful terms.

The chart shows the number of DDS clients in integrated or supported employment rose by 1,297 between 2014 and 2018. But the chart also shows the number of clients in day programs, which provide little or no employment activities, rose by 3,159.

In other words, the numbers show the promise of integrated or mainstream employment hasn’t materialized. More than twice as many former sheltered workshop participants had been transferred to day programs as had been placed in integrated employment.

In testimony submitted to the subcommittee in October 2019, we noted that the Legislature never provided adequate funding for the transition from sheltered workshops to mainstream employment. After 2014, it appears DDS was placing fewer and fewer clients in mainstream employment even as the sheltered workshops were closing.

The Subcommittee report seems to be primarily concerned with disabled people with normal cognitive abilities

Overall, there seems to be little focus on people with I/DD in the report. Even the finding that mentions our concern about individuals with little to do following the closures of the sheltered workshops doesn’t specify that the people involved have I/DD.

There is no distinction made between high and low-functioning persons. The main focus of the report seems to be on how mainstream employers need to do more to hire people with disabilities in general.

Report acknowledged it did not deal with subminimum wage issue

In our October 2019 testimony, we urged the Subcommittee to recognize that it is necessary to allow employers willing to hire persons with I/DD to pay them a subminimum wage in order to ensure that those work opportunities are not reduced further.

The report acknowledged that it did not examine that issue.

As noted, we think this report is a missed opportunity. In an email exchange with us yesterday, Rep. Cutler defended the report, saying, “we don’t have a solution for every challenge presented.”

But this is not a matter of having a solution for every challenge presented. Rather it is a matter of recognizing the problems that exist and being open to addressing them.

  1. Carol O'Donnell
    January 26, 2021 at 5:57 pm

    Thanks David. My last try at dealing with this issue through DDS left me feeling utterly defeated. Then COVID hit and it pushed the issue of work to the back burner. Hopefully COVID will end and I can go back to fighting for my daughter’s right to work. Yeah!

    Like

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