Our right to choose?


Should we all be pushed to reach our full potential…even if we don’t want to?

By Grant J Everett

It’s a story currently shared by the better part of half a million Americans: if you are born in the US with a serious developmental disability or a physical disability (like cerebral palsy or spinal damage), this generally means that public schools will automatically jam you into the too-hard basket from day one. Developmentally delayed students are generally encouraged to leave school at the age of 14 to start a lifelong career in a nonprofit workshop for sub-minimum wage. The majority of these workplaces don’t offer any chance of rehabilitation or advancement, and are basically a dead end.

But thanks to a decision made by the Justice Department in the little state of Rhode Island, there are some MASSIVE changes being put into place that have the potential to cause sweeping change across the United States. Long story short, if these workplaces aren’t able to bump up the pay to minimum wage or better, they’ll be closed. However, most of these workshops don’t generate enough revenue to pay minimum wage, so it’s inevitable that most of them will go out of business.

If somebody isn’t benefiting financially from a job, but they get a sense of accomplishment and meaning, what’s best for them?

On the surface, better pay and better conditions for vulnerable workers is great news. Everybody should be paid a living wage. But what do the EMPLOYEES want?


To be brief: back in 2014 the Justice Department of Rhode Island found that the “sweatshop industry” employing thousands of developmentally delayed workers was guilty of systemic violations of the Disabilities Act. As a result, these sheltered workshops were given two options: improve their working conditions, or close down for good (Heasley 2014).

Rhode Island is also breaking the sweatshop cycle at its source by putting more help in place for school kids who would otherwise be destined to get stuck in this spiral like so many others. There are plans to redirect “significant” funds towards this issue over the next decade, which will include transition services for students, internships, visits to potential job sites and peer mentoring. As there’s more to life than just work, there will also be fun and educational community-based activities outside of business hours.

But what do the workers want?

Most people will get mad if they hear about people with a disability getting exploited. It’s a natural reaction and proves you have a soul. However, when we look at the Rhode Island situation, it’s important to keep in mind that many of the employees who attend these workshops are content with the existing conditions, and a lot of them have made it clear that they’d prefer to stay right where they are (a sentiment that’s more common than you might guess). In addition to the workers themselves, many carers have good things to say about the workshops, and have gone so far as to say that closing these locations would be a great loss for their loved ones.

So the big question is: if somebody is content with their work situation and they make a decision as a grown adult to keep things the way they are, do we have the right to force them to do something else? Are these workers really being exploited if they find meaning, worth and perhaps even joy in doing what they do? If somebody we care for is capable of getting more from life, is it our duty to encourage them to pursue it?

Dead end?

If you think that “sweatshop” is too harsh a term, consider that minimum wage in America is $7.25 an hour, while the average hourly pay for a disabled worker in a sheltered workshop is $2.21. Some might dismiss these numbers with the argument that the workers get government benefits to make up for their low wages (like here in Australia). But while our local Disability Support Pension (DSP) might share a few similarities with American disability benefits, there are huge differences. Getting onto disability benefits in America is magnitudes more difficult than Australia (it’s meant to be the most choosy disability support system in the Western world), and even if you do qualify, the monthly cheques from Uncle Sam are far less generous than what you’d get here. This means that while the average Australian resident in a supported employment role would be able to pay their rent and bills thanks to the DSP safety net, if you’re living in America and attending a similar kind of work setting, you’ll find that making ends meet will be a constant struggle. Most American welfare recipients have to rely on food stamps and carer support just to survive, let alone to treat themselves to anything that isn’t essential.

Most Westerners are sympathetic towards (for instance) workers in Brazil who only earn two bucks an hour, but keep in mind that the much higher cost of living in the US effectively makes American workers worse off than those south of the border!

As a final note: the 2014 judgement made by the Justice Department in Rhode Island has become the catalyst for sweeping change across the US. So far, Oregon and New York have jumped on the bandwagon, and many more will undoubtedly follow.

So what do you think? If we’re capable of getting more from life, should we be forced to meet our potential?

Heasley, S (2014), Justice Department Urges Shift Away From Sheltered Workshops.
Denson, B (2015), Oregon’s sheltered workshops for the disabled to be phased out under terms of settlement.

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