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Jewish Journal

Equal Protection for Workers with Disabilities

by Michelle K. Wolf

June 28, 2013 | 7:12 pm

With the landmark US Supreme Court case rulings this week to end discrimination of gay couples, we are reminded once again of the power wielded by the “equal protection of the laws” clause of 14th amendment of the US Constitution.

One group that is lacking these “equal protections” is workers with disabilities. The most recent egregious case took place in Rhode Island, where high school students and adults with developmental disabilities were “unnecessarily segregated and forced to work for little or no pay for years in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act” according to an article posted on DisabilityScoop. The US Justice Department has been investigating The Harold A. Birch Vocational program at Mount Pleasant High School in Providence, RI, which in the last 20 years, has funneled all of its students to just one vocational training agency, called Training Through Placement, whose only “placement” was in sheltered workshops where special education students ages 14-21 with developmental disabilities were paid 50 cents to $2 per hour, and in some cases nothing at all, to do tasks like bagging, labeling, collating and assembling jewelry.

Students who requested other job opportunities were refused. Sheltered workshops arose after the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in the 1930s, giving employers the right to pay workers with disabilities a wage “commensurate with their productivity.” This form of labor became known as “sheltered work,” because it claims to protect disabled individuals from the competition of the outside world by graciously allowing them to do what they can for a modest, sub-minimum wage salary. In the United States the number of sheltered workshops in the USA increased from 85 to about 3,000 between 1948 and 1976 but most recently, advocates have called for their abolishment.

As the US Justice Dept. said in its letter of investigation to the City of Providence, “When the expectations that public entities have for students with disabilities are unjustifiably low, significant consequences are often imposed upon such young people.” Instead of sheltered workshops, parents and self-advocates want the same opportunities any teenager or young adult has –internships, volunteering and jobs in the “real” market. With our son with developmental disabilities already 18 years old, I worry about what will happen with him after he turns 21 and leaves the public school system. Fortunately, his special education program at Fairfax High School has a fairly extensive community-based instruction, and he is very clear on his ultimate job goal—to be a DJ and go to a party every night. Sure sounds like equality to me.

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