BY MELANIE BUCK –
An act signed into law in 2014 that is meant to protect workers with disabilities has families in the area concerned that it has the potential to create a hardship instead. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was signed into law on July 22, 2014 by President Barack Obama and was created to “increase individuals with disabilities access to high quality workforce services and prepare them for competitive integrated employment.” All facets of the new act were implemented on July 1, 2015 with exception to one – sheltered workshops.
Sheltered workshops are a supervised workplace for physically disabled or mentally handicapped adults; a place where trained staff supervise workers with disabilities and know how to handle each of their issues. Many adults with intellectual disabilities work in sheltered workshops across the country to earn extra cash, but many are paid subminimum wages.
Eve Strother, Employment Specialist at the Polk County Developmental Center (PCDC), works with clients that use PCDC services to help them gain employment, whether it be in the community or at the on-site sheltered workshop. Strother explained that PCDC’s recycling center and resale store are considered sheltered workshops and some of their clients are paid a subminimum wage. For example, she said, “We have clients that tear apart books and are paid by the pound. For those clients, they can work faster or slower and get paid based on what they felt like doing that day.” That is an option not given in the general workforce. However, with WIOA’s idea of integration, individuals with intellectual disabilities will have to try anyway.
Normally, when an intellectually disabled person graduates high school, they can begin to take advantage of services offered by PCDC, such as the Adult Education and Wellness Center and/or the sheltered workshop. With the new regulations, those graduating adults can no longer apply for work at a sheltered workshop at subminimum wage if they are between the ages of 18 – 24 unless they have gone through a battery of new requirements. Those requirements include: career counseling, individualized plan for employment, vocational rehabilitation, and more. Strother said, “They can attend our day services, but they have to try and go out into the community to work. If they can’t make it, there has to be strict and detailed documentation of that before they can be hired here if they are younger than 24.”
Part of WIOA states that it is “designed to help job seekers access employment, education, training, and support services to succeed in the labor market and to match employers with the skilled workers they need to compete in the global economy.” Basically, the point is to A) make intellectually disable persons work in a ‘normal’ work environment that is integrated with ‘normal’ functioning adults and B) to pay them at least minimum wage. But what if a person has a condition that causes them to occasionally have fits or throw things? “In a regular workplace, if someone threw something at a customer, they may get fired, arrested, or sued, because you can’t do that in a ‘normal’ environment. But under a sheltered workshop, we have trained staff that know how to deal with the fit and know that it is a passing moment. Those individuals need to be protected and we have been able to offer that protection here, until now,” said Strother.
Although the governmental agency that passed the act into law and advocates of the changes believe they are helping those individuals become productive members of society, the gap that is created for the 18 – 24 age range is a crack in the sidewalk that too many will fall through.
Angie Graves, Director of PCDC said, “This law was intended to get more people with disabilities integrated into the community workforce. Students leaving high school can no longer come to work at PCDC until they have gone through a series of benchmarks with Arkansas Rehabilitation Services. Unintended consequences may be that those same people will be sidelined into staying at home with no interaction in the community.”
One such family that is already feeling the stress of the new regulations is Richard and Janet Walters, whose 18-year old son, Alan, is autistic. The family had always assumed he would transition to PCDC following graduation.
Janet explained that because of his autism, Alan had always been permitted to attend Sunshine House in the summer and after school, but after he turned 18 in June of this year, that is no longer permissible. Janet described a sharp change in Alan’s personality and behavior when he would be at home all day during the summer without the interaction. He became easily agitated and lost interest in his routine hobbies. This is what adds to the family’s anxiety, with Janet and Richard both having full-time jobs, and knowing how to provide the right care for their grown autistic son, if he is not able to transition after high school graduation in May to PCDC for employment until he is age 24, that leaves a 6-year gap. “Because of his autism, we could keep him in school til he’s 21 and we’ve even talked about that,” explained Janet. The family is working with his teacher at school to determine what other options could be available.
Graves explained that day services, including the Adult Education and Wellness Center will still be available. “Although they cannot work in our facility with the Recycling program or the Resale Store before age 24, they will be able to enroll in our Adult Education and Wellness Center.” So families are encourage to still call PCDC to see what services are available.
Although the regulations are still not complete and the future of sheltered workshops is still up in the air, Strother and staff will continue to do their best with what they are allowed. “PCDC is working to implement all the new regulations within our facilities. We understand that these new regulations have caused concern among parents and guardians, but we want to assure everyone that we will continue to provide the services and support we have long been known for throughout the years. Anyone with concerns are encouraged and welcome to contact our office with questions at 479-394-2671.”