A generation after the Americans with Disabilities Act, states are facing federal demands to rethink their approach to helping disabled people find work. But could the policy shift worsen their prospects?
When Rita Landgraf ran Delaware’s main disability rights organization in the mid-1980s, there was an effort to get clients into the workplace, but that rarely meant an ordinary workplace. It typically was an out-of-the-way facility where they’d be grouped together performing menial tasks -- putting arms into the plastic torsos of toy soldiers, placing bows on boxes or performing other repetitive work, all at a pay well below the minimum wage. It was an improvement on the sterile residential facilities to which these people had once been confined. But in Landgraf’s view, it was nowhere near enough. She believed that, with some help, even those with severe disabilities could work right alongside the rest of the labor force. She wasn’t the first in the country to focus on placing clients in integrated workplaces instead of what are commonly known as “sheltered workshops,” but she was out in front of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which banned discrimination and promised better access to public and private places.
This year, as the Disabilities Act marks its 25th anniversary, proponents such as Landgraf point to all it has accomplished in the way of access, opportunity and inclusion. But in one respect, the law has mostly failed: It has not led to more jobs. The employment rate for the disabled remains basically unchanged after a quarter-century, and many of the 34 percent of Americans with disabilities who do have jobs are in sheltered workshops earning around $2 an hour.
That’s about to change. The federal agencies that oversee Medicaid and labor laws are demanding that states do more to offer employment opportunities to people with disabilities. The Justice Department is also threatening to sue states to open up the work system. These moves amount to a dramatic shift in disability policy and could spell the end for sheltered workshops that don’t adapt. “From my lens, not much has changed since the ADA with employment,” says Landgraf, now Delaware’s secretary of health and social services. On the other hand, she says, “not only are those federal programs starting to align themselves across the board, but stateside there’s so much interest. I’m starting to feel that for the first time.”
The push for integrated employment isn’t without critics. Some parents of the disabled and the nonprofits that run sheltered workshops and other services fear the shift will neglect people who depend on the workshops as a social outlet and for employment as they try to find suitable outside jobs. But advocates of change, including some parents, insist that integrated employment is essential for people with disabilities to realize their full potential and that the benefits range from reduced reliance on social welfare to increased workplace diversity. Regardless of the controversy, change is coming. And states will be at the center of this next phase in a civil rights movement that has at its end a vision of greater community inclusion. As the situation stands now, they still have a long way to go.