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R.I. agrees to reform policies for disabled

Justice Dept. grants Ocean State 10 years to improve pay rates, mobility of training programs

Jocelyn Samuels, acting assistant attorney general, announced an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Rhode Island April 8 calling for an end to the discriminatory pay practices associated with workforce training programs for the developmentally disabled.  

The programs, called sheltered workshops, are targeted at individuals with developmental disabilities to train them for the workforce. But these programs have recently come under public scrutiny given their low pay rates and the limited options for labor mobility.

The workshops first emerged during the movement to close large institutions for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, wrote Craig Stenning, director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, in an email to The Herald.

“At the time, they were considered, by families, to be the attractive alternative. It was not until a few years ago that the Department of Justice began to consider day centers and sheltered workshops as ‘segregated settings’ under the interpretation of the ‘Olmstead decision’,” Stenning wrote.

The Olmstead decision was a 1999 Supreme Court case that held that unjustified special treatment of people with disabilities constituted segregation.

But section 14(c) of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act authorizes certified employers to pay those with developmental disabilities below the minimum wage. The DOJ launched an investigation into sheltered workshops over one year ago due to suspicions that a program in North Providence, “Training Thru Placement,” was abusing this law.

The investigation has since grown into a larger review of sheltered workshops in Rhode Island and across the country. The DOJ estimates that 450,000 people across the country are in sheltered workshops, the New York Times reported April 8.

Rhode Island is now engaged in a consent decree — a voluntary agreement between two parties in return for a withdrawal of a criminal charge or civil litigation — with the DOJ dictating that the state has 10 years to rectify its discriminatory system.

“Federal officials praised (Rhode Island) for recognizing and embracing the need for reform,” the Times reported.

Despite an over 40-year history, sheltered workshops are only now receiving signficant criticism, because policymakers have thus far been unable to find a more adequate solution, said Sarah Skeels, a teaching associate in public health who teaches a seminar on disability, PHP 1680I: “Pathology to Power: Disability, Health and Community.”

“A lot of people see the problem but don’t know what to do about it because it’s systemic,” she added.

The state will now have 10 years to help residents with developmental disabilities find jobs paying at least minimum wage, support nonwork activities like community centers, libraries and recreational and educational facilities, prepare high school students with developmental disabilities for jobs in the community through internships and mentoring programs and redirect the “significant” public funds that are used to support these sheltered workshops, according to a DOJ press release.

The consent decree comes after President Obama’s Executive Order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for federally-contracted workers, including those with disabilities.

“We will be working with (the Rhode Island Department of Education) and (the Office of Rehabilitative Services) to fulfill the various sections of the Decree, and we will be utilizing the technical assistance of several national and local organizations,” Stenning wrote.

Celest Martin, associate professor at the University of Rhode Island and advocate for the developmentally disabled community, said she thinks this desegregation will have a big impact in Rhode Island. Those who have already left segregated workshops and joined the mainstream workforce “will be breaking some stereotypes about people with disabilities,” Martin said.

The “hardest obstacle,” is that the state will need to reanalyze “ways they can efficiently provide transportation for people with developmental disabilities to their places of work,” she said.

And while Martin said she thinks the DOJ’s goals could be achieved within the 10-year timeframe, Skeels was less optimistic given precedent.

Though it has been 14 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act passed, Providence remains a difficult city for individuals with disabilities to navigate despite the Title III provision outlining accessibility requirements for all public buildings, Skeels said.


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