Time to Stop Defending the Low Ground – Moving from Segregated to Open Employment

By Catia Malaquias and Jackie Softly

“Sheltered workshops” continue to provide the “work” aspect of the segregated low-trajectory “special” life pathway for many people with intellectual disability in Australia, and around the world.  And while there have been attempts to de-stigmatise “sheltered workshops” – including by rebranding them in Australia as “Australian Disability Enterprises” or “ADEs” – they remain segregated workplaces where almost all employees remain throughout their working lives. According to the Department of Social Services in 2017, less than 1% per year are transitioned to open employment.

The parallels between segregated “special” education settings and segregated “sheltered workshops” or ADEs are obvious – including parallels in attitudinal and vested interest barriers to transitioning both to inclusive regular or “open” settings.

As with the right to inclusive education, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) (to which Australia is a party), also recognises the right of persons with disability to work, on an equal basis with others – including the right to the opportunity to gain a living by work freely chosen or accepted in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disability (see Article 27 CRPD).

In Australia only 39% of people with intellectual disability are either working or looking for work, compared to 55% of people with other disabilities and 83% of the general population. In addition, people with intellectual disability who do have a job work fewer hours than even other people with disability.

Approximately 75% of the estimated 20,000 people working in ADEs have an intellectual disability, and receive little income, due to wage systems in ADEs and minimal working hours. According to a 2017 Department of Social Services discussion paper the average hourly wage rate in ADEs is $5.61 per hour, with wages ranging from as little as $1 per hour to full award rates.

ADEs receive significant government subsidies – estimated by the Department of Social Services to be $11,800 per person per year – with $1.3 billion committed to subsidised support for ADEs from 2015 to 2020. Furthermore, ADEs have been included in the NDIS, and the government is “investing $180 million on a range of initiatives to support ADEs to adjust to the (NDIS) environment, including investing in business development to support ADE business viability and provide stability for workers with disability and their families”.

So, at a time when the NDIS is providing new opportunities for support for an inclusive life, the government via the NDIS is simultaneously propping up and perpetuating segregated workplaces.

In fact, the federal government’s consultation earlier this year, which they said “aims to initiate discussion and generate ideas about the future of supported employment” was called “A strong future for Supported Employment”. The consultation discussion paper redefined the term ‘supported employment’ as meaning ADEs, contrary to its own current (2012 – 2022) Inclusive Employment Strategy, and championed the perpetuation of ADEs, rather than the right of people to be included in mainstream employment. You can read Down Syndrome Australia’s submission to this consultation here.

Yet there is strong evidence that people with intellectual disability who receive appropriate support can work in open employment with better financial, community inclusion and mental health outcomes than in segregated settings. There is also evidence that supported open employment is more cost effective than maintaining segregated employment settings.  However, a number of systemic and attitudinal barriers in Australia entrench the primacy of sheltered workshops or ADEs:

  • people with intellectual disability are often told that there are no real employment options other than segregated settings – this begins early with schools setting low expectations by using ADEs as work placements for students with intellectual disability;
  • the employment capacity assessments that are done to see whether a person can work more than 8 hours per week (so as to qualify for disability employment services to work in open employment) are “predictive” – they guess in advance what someone may be able to do – and are not based on a real assessment of the potential of a person with intellectual disability when provided with adequate workplace support and training;
  • as identified by Down Syndrome Australia’s 2017 national survey, there is a lack of suitable and accessible vocational and tertiary education options due to low community expectations, inadequate government policy, lack of courses, lack of funding and lack of reasonable accommodations and curricula adjustments;
  • ADEs are now firmly established businesses with vested interests in their continuation.

The August issue of Voice, Down Syndrome Australia’s magazine, contains an article by Bryan Dague entitled “There’s no sheltered workshops in Vermont”.  The article summarises the process applied for the US State’s transition from sheltered workshops to open employment for people with intellectual disability:

“The movement away from sheltered workshops began in 1980 with a supported employment demonstration project.  Key leaders with the state of Vermont and University of Vermont were driven by the values and belief that people with disabilities deserve to be part of the community like everyone else, not institutionalised or segregated.  The supported employment demonstration project called Project Transition started in a sheltered workshop in Barre, Vermont.  The project recruited workers from its sheltered workshop to participate in the model demonstration.  Staff found community based employment for workers with support and training from agency job coaches.  Project Transition took three to four years to successfully move about 70 people out of the facility and into community employment.  The success of this demonstration project led to replication sites throughout the state (Vogelsburg, 1986).

Since the initial supported employment demonstration project, inclusive employment of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities has steadily increased.  The sheltered workshops gradually closed as people found employment in the community or became involved in other community services.  In 2002, Vermont closed its last sheltered workshop for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities making Vermont the first state with no sheltered work.

The shift in philosophy from facility-based to community-based employment services also shifts energy and resources.  Since Vermont has no segregated employment, other opportunities are nurtured and supported.  One emerging trend is university/college options for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. … In 2010 the US Department of Education funded 27 grants to colleges to enable them to create or expand high-quality, inclusive-model, comprehensive transition and postsecondary programs for students with intellectual disabilities.  The University of Vermont was awarded one of these grants and developed the Think College Vermont  program.”

Like the New Brunswick Inclusive Education Policy, Vermont received international recognition from the Zero Project in 2017 for innovative policy – for being “exemplary in the areas of innovation, impact and transferability.  The State of Vermont’s supported employment program is outstanding as it facilitates the shift from sheltered employment settings to more inclusive employment for for people with developmental disabilities” (Zero Project, 2017).

As with the segregated “special” education system, there are strong vested interests that will defend and rebrand segregated employment settings.  Further, some people who work or have worked in segregated settings for very low wages say they value the experience and friendships.  Many parents of people with disability will, like many parents of students in segregated education settings, defend segregated employment settings as an option for their son or daughter.  But much of this justification is given against a context of “low expectations” and denial of opportunity – where people with disability, particularly intellectual disability, are not being adequately supported from a policy or resource perspective to transition from secondary education to open and supported employment.

Jackie Softly, one of the founders of Down Syndrome WA, whose adult son has Down syndrome and experienced ADE employment, responded perfectly to a comment in social media (about the Voice article) in which the commenter defended ADEs, saying that people with intellectual disability shouldn’t be denied the “opportunity” to work in an ADE and thereby gain the benefits, including friendship:

“The greatest barriers to employment (and pretty much all other aspects of life) for people with intellectual disability are community attitudes and beliefs that result in low expectations.

It is these that have led to segregation throughout history. It is these that have set up systems and structures under the guise of “supported employment”, which used to mean support to find work whether segregated or open employment, but now the federal government says is just ADEs (the current name for the workshops).

It is these that cause special schools to only seek work experience in sheltered workshops for their students with intellectual disability.

It is these that have given us a system where school leavers with intellectual disability are assessed for their job capacity before they’ve learned how to work or had any training (flying in the face of evidence that this makes no sense and condemns these young people to a life of segregated workplaces and welfare dependence).

It is these that have led to parents believing this is the only option for their sons and daughters.

It is these that have brought us now to a situation where almost all people with intellectual disability don’t actually have a choice.

[People] … talk about about the sheltered workshop experience being an opportunity for these young people. In fact, what they need is the opportunity to show they can do much, much more than the rest of the community thinks they can.

Down Syndrome Australia, Down Syndrome WA, people with Down syndrome and many of us who are parents are fighting to make the opportunity to be part of the community a reality. The Voice article is a great example of how a whole State made it work. It’s well past time we followed suit.

I’m a parent whose son spent years in an ADE. One of the ‘better’ ones, we were told. But ADEs too are ruled by the same attitudes and low expectations as the rest of the community. There’s a lot of talk (by staff and managers) about the friendships and a sense of purpose, but go and talk with the people who work in ADEs and you will hear many other things including “why don’t I get paid properly?”, “why do I keep being put in jobs I don’t like?” and “why can’t I work somewhere else?”. Sadly, you may also hear of bullying and abuse. Yes, even in the ‘good’ ones.

I also worked for a number of years in evaluating disability services, primarily segregated settings which gives me a fair bit of insight and has led to me being a champion for inclusion.

It is time to let go of the beliefs and attitudes that see ADEs as a positive opportunity, and for each of us to provide support and opportunities for people with intellectual disability to be able to have their right to inclusion met.”

For more information about supporting people with Down syndrome and intellectual disability in open employment we recommend the resources in the “Employment” section website of Down Syndrome Australia including:

Read more from Starting With Julius:

“Closing Sheltered Workshops – A US Case Study of Conflicting Interests”

“Ethical Supply Chains, Disability, Sheltered Workshops, Segregation and Exploitation”

[Cover photo © Des]

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