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Bill Villemaire, 58, employed at the Sweet Clover
Bill Villemaire, 58, has been employed at the Sweet Clover grocery store for four years. Before that, Villemaire, who has an intellectual disability, worked for less than minimum wage in the last sheltered workshop to close in Vermont. (Photo courtesy Champlain Community Services)

A PublicSource investigation found that at least 13,000 Pennsylvanians with disabilities are working for an average of $2.40 an hour in sheltered workshops. A sheltered workshop provides low-skill work for people with disabilities. There is a deep divide in opinions about whether the workshops are of benefit or harm.

The sheltered workshops that are still prevalent in Pennsylvania were shut down in Vermont more than a decade ago. And now, the employment rate of people with developmental disabilities in the New England state is twice the national average.

Vermont resident Bill Villemaire, who has an intellectual disability, benefitted from the state’s major policy shift, a change that states throughout the nation are mulling.

Villemaire, 58, said he felt claustrophobic and worn out while working for a pittance at a sheltered workshop. He is now a seasoned employee at a Sweet Clover grocery store, checking for products that have expired or have been damaged.

With that paycheck, he enjoys trying new restaurants and buying Christmas gifts for friends and family. “My life has taken a turn for the better,” he said.

Michelle Paya can vouch for that. As the employment director at Champlain Community Services, where Villemaire received help in finding the job, she remembers the day he got his first paycheck.

“He actually copied it three times and put it up on the wall of my office,” Paya said. “He had so much pride of what he was doing and wanted to show off his accomplishments.”

How and why did Vermont close sheltered workshops?

Vermont closed its last sheltered workshop in 2002, four years after the state told workshop providers that they were being carved out of the system.

But the shift actually began in the 1980s, when the University of Vermont received a grant to build programs for integrated employment in partnership with state disability agencies. The movement grew and policymakers eventually decided sheltered workshops no longer fit the state's values on the treatment of people with disabilities.

Integrated employment rate of people with developmental disabilities

National: 18%
Vermont: 38%
Pennsylvania: 15%

Note: Includes only people receiving services by disability agencies in fiscal year 2012

Source: The 2013 national report on employment services and outcomes. University of Massachusetts Boston, Institute for Community Inclusion

The Vermont Developmental Disabilities Services Division started by not allowing new people in sheltered workshops, where people with disabilities work only with other people like them.

“We closed the front door,” said Jennie Masterson, the agency’s supported employment services coordinator.

The next step was to cut funding to sheltered workshops over time.

The state partnered with workshop providers. “We were very careful not to say, ‘Just figure this out,’” Masterson said. “We wanted to be at the table and help.”

All this change took place outside of the state’s legislative process. The agency rewrote how it would deliver developmental disability services. “We didn’t make it a big political process,” Masterson said.

Ultimately, no public dollars were used for anything less than integrated employment. That also eliminated enclaves, which are work programs that take people with disabilities into regular workplaces with close supervision.

What was the reaction and what happened to those in workshops?

The families were initially scared for their adult children who had worked in sheltered workshops. They couldn’t envision a job in the community that their child could fill, and parents thought they’d be unsafe and lonely without their peers.

“It was a really trying time to help families understand the value of inclusion and the value of community work because they had a place of safety for their adult children and they didn’t want to give it up,” Paya said.

Within three years, about 80 percent of people who’d worked in the last sheltered workshop to close found jobs. Those who didn’t got other services based in the community.

Eventually, families’ opinions started changing.

Bryan Dague, research associate at the University of Vermont Center on Disability and Community Inclusion, interviewed families of workshop participants before and after the closure.

He recalled one parent who was very much opposed. Four years later, she had done a 180.

She saw a “tremendous benefit” to her adult daughter getting out into the community, Dague said. “She made new friends and she started to blossom.”

Another young woman who had been in a sheltered workshop began to work at a daycare, supervising the children and preparing their lunches, Paya said.

“She had been nonverbal all her time in the workshop,” she said. “She started talking in her new job, and she now has great communication with her employer and the community.”

What does the employment picture look like for Vermont residents with disabilities today?

The number of employed Vermonters with developmental disabilities continues to climb.

Of more than 3,000 people who received funding and services from the state in fiscal year 2013, about 1,140 were employed, according to state figures.

That’s an increase of about 115 people over the previous year, Masterson said. “It’s small, incremental growth, but it’s always increasing. That means people retained their jobs and more people are going to work.”

Vermont has a supported employment program in each of its 14 counties to help people with disabilities find and apply for jobs as well as learn the jobs. Unlike many states, the support of a job coach does not fade over time, which helps to improve retention.

The state and employment programs say businesses have been receptive to hiring people with disabilities.

Champlain Community Services alone has formed partnerships with 40 employers, educating them on hiring and retaining people with disabilities, Paya said. “It’s educating to eliminate fear. We’re helping an employer see value in all individuals.”

The wages in Vermont also reflect the attitude of the state and its business community. In fiscal year 2013, the average wage for supported employees was $9.26, more than 50 cents above the state’s minimum wage and $2 above the federal minimum wage.

Some work a couple of hours a week and some 50 hours a week. The average workweek for people with intellectual disabilities in Vermont is 16 hours, according to a 2013 Institute for Community Inclusion report.

The part-time hours remain a concern for families in Vermont as well as Pennsylvania because the individuals may not be supervised during the downtime. Dague said the state has been successful in using the Medicaid waiver to provide services to people who need more structure outside of their work hours.

Overall, sheltered workshops have become a blip in Vermont’s history.

“Young parents with high school students ready to graduate don't even know what a sheltered workshop is,” Masterson said. “It’s just typical now that you graduate and you go to college or you go to work.”

What else is available for people with disabilities in Vermont?

The focus is getting people with disabilities into the community.

While sheltered workshops used to be the natural transition after high school, there is a renewed emphasis on education. Five Vermont colleges, with grant funding, have developed post-secondary education programs for people with disabilities that have been successful in leading to employment.

Employment programs are also trying less traditional ways of immersing people with disabilities into the community.

Champlain Community Services, for instance, established a public access television show, where its clients with disabilities invite guests on air for an interview.

Many providers are also helping people with disabilities secure memberships to gyms and arranging volunteer opportunities.

What lessons can other states take from Vermont?

Some states say Vermont is unique because it is small and other states couldn’t do the same.

Still, about 300 people representing 39 states, including Pennsylvania, have participated in four Conversion Institutes to find out just how Vermont did away with sheltered workshops. The institute covers how the state changed its policy and culture.

One of the first steps: Throw out the argument that some people are too disabled to be employed.

“Many of the people we place in jobs had been labeled as unemployable,” Masterson said. “We have seen people who’ve had all sorts of significant disabilities and they're working. … It enriches their lives.”

She suggests challenging supported employment programs to develop new approaches to employment of people with disabilities.

“Start with a pocket of creativity in the state,” she said. “Start with a place where you already have good employment services and build some enthusiasm around an innovative pilot program.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.

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