NDRN Report Shines Light on Exploitation of Disabled
By Janine Bertram Kemp
The National Disability Rights Network released a
groundbreaking report in January that has evoked a volatile reaction in many
quarters. The report, "Segregated and Exploited: The Failure of the Disability
Service System to Provide Quality Work," is NDRNs call to action.
The report documents abuses at Henrys Turkey Farm in
Atalissa, Iowa, in 2009 and 2010. Sixty men with disabilities, who worked
alongside non-disabled workers, lived together in a roach-infested, abandoned
school-turned-bunkhouse. Henrys paid $600 per month for use of the
tax-free bunkhouse and deducted $10,000 a week from the disabled mens
checks, according to a story in the Des Moines Register.
Each of the disabled workers averaged a net pay of 41
cents per hour, while co-workers without disabilities averaged $9 to $12 per
hour. Because Henrys Turkey Farm was also landlord and
caretaker for the workers with disabilities, the farm received the
men's Social Security checks and took deductions for such things as housing and
transportation. As a result, the disabled workers took home about $65 per
According to the NDRN, exploitation and abuse of people
with disabilities continues in the segregated settings of sheltered workshops
and training centers throughout the nation.
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NDRN found "a total failure of the disability service
system to provide quality work for people with disabilities. The report
includes the evolution of workshops and problems with segregated work,
sheltered environments and subminimum wages. It highlights a massive breakdown
between good federal and state policies and their implementation and oversight,
and explains funding streams and extensive legislative and policy
ADAPT organizer Bob Kafka said there is something
fundamentally wrong with using Medicaid home and community-based services funds
for sheltered workshops.
"If you think of these workshops as plantations, and the
people in them as the slaves picking cotton, then the providers are the slave
owners making a profit off our subminimum wage labor," he said. "Over time we
have become a commodity in this medical-professional complex we call the
developmental disability delivery system."
Kafka served on the board of the National Association of
Protection and Advocacy Systems (now NDRN) and has a deep understanding of
policy in the realms of physical and developmental disability.
Follow the money, Kafka said. There is a
lot of it. Making a profit is not a bad thing; however, we must assure that the
end result of making this profit is community integration, not segregation."
Release of the report has raised a hue and cry from those
representing service providers.
We are getting pushback from provider groups like
ARC (an organization that promotes and protects the human rights of people with
intellectual and developmental disabilities), UCP (United Cerebral Palsy) and
ACCSES, so support from NCIL (the National Council on Independent Living),
individual CILs (centers for independent living), and the broader disability
movement is welcome and appreciated, said NDRN executive director Curt
ACCSES (formerly the American Congress of Community
Supports and Employment Services), the lobbying arm for disability providers,
wasted no time in attacking the NDRN report. The group issued an open letter to
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, defending subminimum wage and the use of training and
home and community-based services (HCBS) monies to fund segregated sheltered
Bobbie Silverstein, ACCSES legislative counsel and a
former Harkin aide and Americans with Disabilities Act proponent, signed the
letter. It criticizes the report and NDRN for attacking colleagues in the
The Harkin letter states:
report the authors use pejorative language to describe the motives and
practices of community rehabilitation programs. Examples include 'people with
disabilities are being ...financially exploited'; 'sheltered workshops are not
what they promise to be, and sometimes serve as an unsettling example of how
good intentions can lead to terrible outcomes'; 'unfortunately, sheltered
workshops and the subminimum wage still exist today because of the
self-interested employers...'; 'sheltered workshops have replaced institutions
in many states as the new warehousing system.' We do not understand how
condemning colleagues in the disability community furthers the best interests
of people with the most significant disabilities. (The full letter can be
seen at www.accses.org.)
Decker has a different view.
Curt Decker formerly from the
National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (now NDRN)
Transition has become a funnel for sheltered
workshop money, he said. We are working with Senator Harkin to add
new language that will close the front door. We are also working with federal
agencies to increase monitoring and enforcement efforts.
Kafka agrees. What is lost in the whole controversy
about sheltered versus integrated employment is why employment or even
prevocational funds are not appropriated through the cross-disability
vocational rehabilitation/independent living (VR/IL) system instead of the
Medicaid HCBS system," he said. "And why are they almost totally for people
with the label of developmentally disabled?
"Why are we surprised that the provider network (of
Medicaid HCBS for people with developmental disabilities), who are incentivized
to provide a package of services, decides that sheltered employment (what some
call "dayhab") fits better in their business plan to maximize revenue rather
than promoting integrated employment?
The NDRN report noted that for transition and
justification of sheltered workshop placement, providers play fast and loose
with such terms as "choice" and "pre-employment." They argue that people with
disabilities have the right to choose workshops as pre-employment training.
"Segregated and Exploited" notes that often the full range
of options available for youth transitioning from school to work is not
explained to students and their families. Instead, counselors offer sheltered
workshops as pre-employment training. The placement often continues
indefinitely, and the person never leaves pre-employment for actual employment.
The service provider keeps collecting federal dollars for perpetual
Michael Bailey, president-elect of NDRN, said he believes that the transition population of
young people with disabilities will help force policy change.
There is a whole new generation coming out of
transition who have had the benefit of inclusive education. Their expectations
are very high and cannot be met in a sheltered workshop situation. The very
least and most immediate thing we require is a moratorium on young people
coming out of transition and going into sheltered workshops. That needs to stop
They still think they are complete human beings with
a real future, and they expect employment and a real life. That is perhaps the
unintended consequence of inclusive education. They won't put up with it.
"Segregated and Exploited" also notes what it called "the
tyranny of low expectations. Counselors and other service providers view
those with significant disabilities as too disabled to work at real jobs in an
integrated setting and, thus, real work and supported employment options are
not offered. Person-centered planning isnt an alternative when providers
stereotype their clients as unable to work, according to the report.
Marsha Katz has voiced concerns about so-called "choice"
and pre-employment. She is project director at the University of
Montana Rural Institute and was formerly employed for 20 years at the
Association for Community Advocacy, an ARC in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"I come from the long-existing school of 'pre' means
'never,'" she said. "So the term 'prevocational' is pretty meaningless or,
rather, it's like the term 'pregnant.' Either activities are vocational in
nature or they are not. There are people, even some with disabilities, who
defend the existence of workshops and day activity centers as a
choice that should be available to people with developmental
disabilities. Their rhetoric sounds to me much like the rhetoric we have heard
from the groups who advocate that institutions should be a choice for people
with developmental disabilities. In my opinion, they should certainly not be a
choice that gets funded by federal dollars.
For far too long there has been widespread,
unconscionable acceptance of using a different yardstick to measure the rights
and options for and choices afforded to people with disabilities, especially
those with intellectual, communication and other developmental disabilities.
The NDRN report is affirming what many of us have been demonstrating and
fighting about for many years ... real jobs and self-employment for real pay in
the community ... one yardstick for all of us."
Self Advocates Becoming Empowered, a group run by and for
people with significant disabilities, strongly backed the report. At SABE, many
have disabilities similar to those mentioned in Henry's Turkey Farm.
We have been prepared enough," said Betty Williams,
SABE president. "Get us real jobs. Close sheltered workshops. The NDRN report
explains the real problems with the sheltered workshop system.
Prior to the ADA, disability groups had generally formed a
united front. But the release of the NDRN report has highlighted divisions
between people with disabilities and service providers and between the
developmental disability and physical disability communities.
If we truly believe all folks, regardless of their
disability label, can benefit from prevocational, vocational and IL services --
which I do -- maybe we should advocate moving all that Medicaid money currently
used for those services through the HCBS system into the cross-disability VR/IL
system," said ADAPT leader Kafka. "Community integration as promoted in the ADA
didn't envision labels. It outlined discrimination against all people with
disabilities. Let us advocate for that principle rather than circling the wagon
around the silos and labels that have set us apart in the service arena.
Decker sees the controversy as an opportunity for CILs to
support implementation of the NDRN report in their own communities.
Go into these workshops, visit and work with
self-advocates," he said. "Let people in the workshops know there are other
choices. They can do something else.
The NDRN has requested support from the broader disability
community in hopes that, based on the sheltered workshop report, its disparate
groups will further the interests of people with disabilities by championing
policy changes that will lead to integrated employment at fair wages.
Katz, the former ARC employee, sees a path to unity among
members of the disability community.
I understand why providers would naturally try to
protect their turf, which includes the jobs of the staff they employ," she
said. "And I don't think that that turf-guarding has to be mutually exclusive
with a commitment to assisting people with disabilities to achieve real work
for real pay in the real community -- the same outcome we all desire for
ourselves and those we love.
Background of this story.
Janine Bertram Kemp is a writer and disability rights
advocate who lives in Zig Zag, Ore. She is currently working with Tom Olin on
the Disability Rights Center Photo/Oral History Project.