Eight thousand people with disabilities currently work in sheltered workshops in New York, but that will change if the state and advocates for integrated competitive employment for all have their way. North Country Public Radio featured a story (3/30/15) by David Sommerstein, in Watertown, New York, asking the question, “Can every person with a disability hold a regular job?”
One of the people interviewed was Michael Callahan, who argues that community employment is “achievable for almost everyone…”. He goes on to say, “So bring me a person who’s in a coma and let’s agree right now until they get out of the coma we won’t try to get them a job," But anyone short of comatose is a likely candidate for a minimum wage job in the community. Did I mention that Michael Callahan makes his living as president of a consulting firm (Marc Gold & Associates) that, among other things, finds integrated employment for people with disabilities?
The NCPR story includes interviews with people who welcome the closure of sheltered workshops and others, including people who work in these specialized work centers, who say they fill a vital need in their communities.
This is very personal for me, because my two sons, who are not comatose, are nevertheless profoundly limited by their multiple disabilities. Their needs are great: along with 24/7 care, they need activities and social relationships with with people who accept and respect them for who they are. But that does not include working at a job that pays minimum wage. I always wonder about people who say they could place anyone not in a coma successfully in a job with the proper supports. With unlimited funding and effort, supporting my sons in employment is still unimaginable. What are they doing this for? To make a point? To prove that their ideology that says everyone can be employed in the community is true?
I have a question for Mike Callahan and this is not a joke, either. By his way of thinking, how can he justify dismissing the employability of a person in a coma? We know that some people in comas are aware of their surroundings and eventually recover. Is it fair to exclude the comatose from the opportunity to work in supported employment in the community?
The NCPR story is worth listening to, but the report begins with a misleading statement about the basis for closing sheltered workshops. This is a common blunder that reporters make when they do not check out source materials and instead rely on what they are told.
The NCPR report begins with this statement: “The United States Supreme Court ruled that keeping people with disabilities in separate work settings constitutes discrimination more than 15 years ago..." This is not true. Every reporter who wants to talk about the 1999 Supreme Court Olmstead decision should be required to read it. The court in Olmstead did not mention sheltered workshops. The case is about two women in Georgia who were at one time institutionalized, but wanted to receive services in a community setting. They were deemed capable of this by the professionals who treated them and community-based services were adequate to their needs. The court determined that unjustified isolation is discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But the court also recognized "...that nothing in the ADA or its implementing regulations condones termination of institutional settings for persons unable to handle or benefit from community settings...Nor is there any federal requirement that community based treatment be imposed on patients who do not desire it." The ADA requires that programs are provided in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the individual.
I wouldn’t have to worry that the services and programs that my sons need might be eliminated by overzealous disability advocates, if we had proper enforcement of the Olmstead decision. Unfortunately, Olmstead is being used for purposes never intended by the Supreme Court, as a tool to help states close programs, eliminate residential options, and relieve the states of responsibility for people with more severe disabilities under the guise of preventing discrimination.
[This post was tweaked and updated later in the day, 4/1/15...JB]