Rhode Island Settles Case on “Unnecessary Segregation” of People with Disabilities

The state of Rhode Island came to a “landmark settlement” with the Justice Department earlier this month putting new regulations on segregated workshops and adult day programs that exploited individuals with disabilities and removed them from the larger community. The settlement is viewed by many as a template for other states to ensure the civil rights of individuals with disabilities.

For years, it was customary to send people with disabilities to sheltered workshops, where they were financially exploited with little or no chance of ever finding independent employment in the community. People like Stephen Porcelli, 50, of North Providence. After high school, Mr. Porcelli briefly worked at a hardware store before being enrolled in a sheltered workshop run by a nonprofit agency called Training Through Placement. He was paid $2 per hour to complete various menial jobs, including jewelry assembly, packing medical supplies, and grating cheese and stuffed peppers for an Italian food company. He says,

“I did want another job, because that’s what it was supposed to be: training through placement. . . I was there for 30 years. I was doing piecework most of the time, which I didn’t like too much.”

Under the agreement, Rhode Island has 10 years to make the following changes:

  • Help state residents with developmental disabilities obtain jobs in the community that pay at least minimum wage and offer the maximum number of hours consistent with the employee’s abilities and preferences
  • Provide support for non-work activities in the community, including community centers, libraries, recreational and educational facilities
  • Prepare high-school age children with developmental disabilities for jobs in the community through internships and mentoring programs
  • Redirect public funds used for segregated settings towards programs that offer services in integrated settings

The investigation started over one year ago, when officials from the Justice Department discovered that the average wage for employees working at Training Thru Placement programs was $1.57 an hour, with some earning as little as 14 cents per hour.

Further investigation revealed that employees at the facility desired meaningful work in the community. Many had been requesting employment in the community for years, but their requests were routinely ignored.

The investigation also determined that vocational programs in local high schools were failing to train students for competitive employment in the community, and were instead giving them menial jobs to complete while using state and federal funds to “shuttle” students with developmental disabilities into sheltered programs.

The investigation also found that only 5% of young people with developmental disabilities leaving secondary schools from 2010 to 2012 went on to jobs in the greater community.

The overall response from the business community was positive. U.S. Business Leadership Network, a network of Fortune 500 companies, and Walgreens are sponsoring a business summit meeting in June to explore ways to help individuals with developmental disabilities find training and employment.

Recently, Autism Daily Newscast covered a story about billionaire Peter Schiff, who caused controversy after his appearance on The Daily Show when he claimed that “mentally retarded” people would be happy to work for less than minimum wage. Apparently, people like Stephen Porcelli disagree.