`Regular' Jobs Outdo Sheltered Workshops

A greater understanding of people with disabilities has helped open the door to more fulfilling employment

DESPITE speaking difficulties and her need for a wheelchair, Priscilla Morrison has worked part-time for 10 years at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Now on her second job, she works in the financial aid department, filing, sending out mailings, and helping to produce a yearly brochure.

Before her job at Babson, Ms. Morrison worked for 20 years in a sheltered workshop. ``I got tired of the workshop and the people,'' she says. ``I said to Babson, `give me a chance,' and they did.''

For decades, most people with severe disabilities who wanted to work had one choice: sheltered workshops. But that has changed, and some people who work in the field anticipate that many of the workshops will close. Now, federal and state governments, people with disabilities, and agencies that assist them are using job coaches and intensive training and support to help these people find ``regular'' jobs.

Having a job in the community ``is just an opportunity to have a real life,'' says Tammara Freeman, coordinator of member services for the Association for Persons in Supported Employment. The Association's goal is to see ``sheltered segregated settings closed altogether and see everybody working in the community.''

Workshops filled a void left by both government and business: providing vocational training and paying jobs for disabled workers, particularly those who are developmentally disabled. But with the advent of supported employment, the agencies have moved away from workshops and have become more like placement agencies.

Finding support

According to a 1989 Louis Harris poll, two-thirds of all working-age Americans with disabilities do not work, although more than three-quarters said they would if they had the necessary support services, as Morrison does. Morrison goes to work in a wheelchair van provided by the state Department of Mental Retardation, and Babson has put in a handicapped bathroom for her.

Her situation is becoming less unusual, as public perception of the abilities of people with severe developmental disabilities has changed. Financial incentives - for people with disabilities, state governments, and business - have also helped crack open the door to the paid work force. In a workshop, an employee is generally paid per item produced and not by the hour. The average wage is only $1 to $1.25 an hour, according to William Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion at Children's Hospital in Boston. In supported employment situations, workers with disabilities earn three times as much. Higher pay means lower disability benefits for workers and tax money for state governments.

What's in it for business?

There are also incentives for businesses. In addition to a tax break, business gets training and supervision for as long as necessary for the disabled employees it hires. A company may pay a person either directly or through a contract with a workshop. The end result, the customers, agencies, and states hope, are permanent jobs with benefits.

By federal standards, the term developmentally disabled means anyone who has a disability that affects a major life function, such as walking, talking, eating, or communicating. Approximately 2.5 million have such disabilities, Mr. Kiernan says. Of those, about 825,000 Americans participate in workshop or other agency programs.

At Walnut Industries in Sommerville, Mass., the workshop of the Walnut Street Center agency, about 90 people with mental retardation and other developmental disabilities put together a bulk mailing for the Stride Rite Corporation and package binders for medical records.

Some agencies have already shut down their sheltered workshops and switched to supported employment, says Vera DeMarco, Walnut Industry's director of work and clinical services. Walnut Industries hopes to close its workshop in three to five years, while continuing to provide its ``customers'' with training, employment, and other job-related support.

``We'll become more of a placement agency,'' she says. ``We'll support [our customers] if they are laid off, or aren't happy in their jobs and come back to us. We'll become like a head hunter.'' She estimates that, with support from the center, about 80 percent of her customers can work in the community.

Walnut Industries locates jobs and trains customers to shake hands, look people in the eye, emphasize their skills in interviews, and write resumes. They also escort customers to interviews, and then supervise them on the job at no cost to the employer, until they do the work correctly and their co-workers and supervisors feel comfortable. This has sometimes taken up to a year.

Bruce Houghton, president of Houghton Chemical Corporation in Boston, hired Randy Dottin three years ago to work part-time as a janitor. Mr. Dottin, who is 37 and mentally retarded, had never held a competitive job before.

At the interview, ``Bruce asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee, and Randy said yes,'' says Deb Leona, employment and development coordinator at Walnut Industries. ``And then I realized Randy was taking out his snack, which I hadn't realized he'd brought. He thought that was what he was supposed to do.'' Now Ms. Leona has added the coffee ritual to her training.

Walnut Industries, rather than Houghton Chemical, trained Dottin. Dottin's job coaches worked with him for six months, Mr. Houghton says. ``They worked with him daily, and they worked with people in the office,'' he says.

Although Houghton has hired another janitor once a week to do the tasks that Dottin cannot do, Houghton says he has no regrets. Dottin brings a new perspective to the company. Once Houghton was having a meeting with the company vice presidents when Dottin arrived to vacuum his office. Dottin was not bothered by the meeting. ``He'd have vacuumed my office regardless if President Clinton was here,'' Houghton says.

At Triangle Inc. in Malden, Mass., workshop supervisor Mark Friedman oversees 300 people with developmental disabilities. The agency has its own woodworking business which grosses around $1 million annually. Mr. Friedman sends 60 people out daily to supported work sites. He has placed people at Fleet Services, Bradlees, Stop & Shop, and Bull & Finch Enterprises. ``A lot more are qualified to go off site,'' Friedman says, ``but we don't have the sites.''

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