Growth of the Sheltered Workshop Movement

As I watch the health care reform process unfold I am struck by how significant legislation enacted in the Other Washington can change how we do business right here. Watching the current debate I am reminded of the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973. It was the impetus for us to move from therapeutic arts and crafts to industrial based sheltered employment in the 1970’s and 1980’s because of the influx of federal money which propelled the growth of facility based services. Funds were made available for not only a wide array of services but grants were created for building and equipment purchases. This, coupled with the establishment of a nationwide network of college based centers to train staff, propelled our industry into areas not previously dreamed.
Laws were passed both at the state and national level that gave purchasing preference to sheltered workshops which boosted the number, type, and complexity of contracts available for us. The growth of sheltered workshops was phenomenal with some agencies manufacturing very complex items for the military, aerospace and electronics industries. Often where the agency was located typically reflected the type of work the workshop performed. For instance programs in central Washington were involved in wood products, manufacturing items such as tree spreaders, bins and pallets to move product for the orchard industry. Programs in the greater Seattle area were involved in manufacturing sub-assembly for the aerospace and electronics industry as well as packaging. There developed an entrepreneurial spirit within sheltered workshops; a belief that within reason you could bid and produce anything.
During this time laws were also enacted governing and regulating sheltered workshops primarily in the area of wages paid to working individuals with disabilities. The laws were to protect both the worker and competing companies. Additional legislation also promoted the growth of public benefit corporations (such as Morningside).
Eventually the unprecedented growth made referring an individual to a sheltered workshop too easy even though the workshops were increasingly placing individuals with disabilities into jobs outside the sheltered program. At the time it was believed that a person needed to learn a variety of skills and produce at a certain rate before they were helped to find a job. As a result, people with disabilities got stuck in the system with little expectation of working in a community job like family members and friends. This frustration, coupled with the development of a strong self-advocacy movement, pushed for integration in all aspects of life. This caused the service providers, led by those we serve, to examine sheltered workshops programs including the reason for their very existence. And this examination led directly to Morningside’s Bridge to Community – which will be the focus of my next blog.

CEO Viewpoint is published by Jim Larson, CEO Morningside

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Posted in Advocacy