To comply with a federal mandate, New York is phasing out its sheltered workshop programs in favor of mainstreaming disabled workers into competitive jobs that pay at least minimum wage. The goal of expanding rights for the disabled is a good one, but the reality is not good for some caught in the transition.
Newsday reporter Ridgely Ochs has detailed the disturbing plight of some of those workers at Long Island's four workshops, and we have heard from the families of others with similar stories. For years, the workers performed jobs with other disabled workers in a supportive community that helped them with walking and eating and even using the bathroom. The pay was not much, sometimes less than $2 an hour, but a salary wasn't the point of the program.
Mary Fleisch wrote to us about her brother, Charlie. He used to be an assistant teacher at a United Cerebral Palsy center, but is one of those who lost out in the transition. While he has a college degree, he has to be fed, needs help using the toilet and requires that the batteries in the device that allows him to communicate be changed every three hours. He can't work in an integrated setting and is now depressed. "The one thing that made him happy and feel productive was taken away from him," his sister wrote.
Charlie Fleisch and others caught in this transition, especially the more disabled people and older workers who thrived in a protective setting, are the losers. Their friends, community and self-esteem are not likely to be replicated outside of the state-sponsored programs. And those who cannot work have nowhere to go.
Is that really progress?