Let’s Get to Work

Picture your typical high school student. When they graduate, they may go off to college, spend some time traveling, or find a job. Undoubtedly, their parents have big dreams for them and have pushed and prodded them along the way to gather the skills they’ll need to build a career.

The future for a high school senior with disabilities looks very different. Upon graduation, their options are to stay at home or enter a day program or sheltered workshop. Competitive employment is rarely an option. In fact, students with disabilities may never even have been asked the common question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Their parents and supporters may actually find it difficult to dream about the future.

The unemployment rate for people with disabilities has been 79% for the past two decades. That percentage includes all people with disabilities, including physical disabilities, mental illness, and intellectual disabilities. If we just look at the unemployment rate for people with intellectual disabilities, the number jumps to 97%.

True, many people with intellectual disabilities attend sheltered workshops or some type of group employment where they’re segregated at a business and receive their paycheck from the facility that has the contract to do the job. But while people may get paid for the work they’re doing, it’s not actually considered work by the Department of Labor and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Work is a job held in a typical workplace setting where the majority of people employed are not persons with disabilities. People earn at least minimum wage and are paid directly by their employer.

Sheltered workshops were primarily established as a place for people with disabilities to develop skills to transition into the competitive labor market. However, in reality, that’s not how sheltered workshops ended up functioning. Many people are continuing to attend workshops with little hope of gaining competitive employment in the community.

On average, people working in traditional jobs earn $456 per week. People with disabilities working in sheltered workshops average $175 per month. Why do they earn so much less in the sheltered workshops? Part of the reason stems from the sub-minimum wage. But people with disabilities are only paid for the work they complete, and the workshops don’t always have work for everyone. (Although everyone is expected to show up every day, regardless of whether there’s work for them.)

But people with disabilities don’t have to work in sheltered workshops. Even people who may struggle to be productive at the sheltered workshop can make valuable contributions to businesses with the right type of support, by focusing on a person’s interests, skills, and when and where they do their best work.

Through customized employment, people with disabilities can and are participating in the workforce. They are earning a paycheck, building relationships with their coworkers, building their confidence, and contributing to the economic stability of their community.

The future for high school seniors with disabilities doesn’t have to look so very different from their peers’ futures. Inclusive employment can be part of it. And with parents, family members, and support staff asking “What do you want to be?”, dreams can grow and the future can hold many possibilities.

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