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  • Larissa Martin

What You Should Know About the Sheltered Workshop Crisis


Larissa Martin Dec 26, 2023

As an adult with multiple disabilities, I care deeply about the work that other disabled people do. Unfortunately, for many people with disabilities, that means working in sheltered workshops and making under minimum wage for their labor. To make matters worse, there are laws in place that allow this to continue. Here are some facts you probably didn’t know about sheltered workshops:

What is a sheltered workshop? 

According to Social Security, a sheltered workshop is “a private non-profit state or local government institution that provides employment opportunities for individuals who are developmentally, physically, or mentally impaired to prepare for gainful work in the general economy.” These workshops may provide work experience, training in employment and life skills, and physical rehabilitation. However, while the concept of a sheltered workshop may sound great, these institutions often only provide under-stimulating work and severely underpay their disabled workers.

When were sheltered workshops first established?

Schools for the blind adopted sheltered workshops because their studies focused on establishing life skills as well as general knowledge. In 1838, the first sheltered workshops became a way for the blind to find employment opportunities in a world that might discriminate against them. 

Today, sheltered workshops don’t just employ the blind — they also hire people with a range of physical and developmental disabilities. In fact, 300,000 Americans with disabilities currently work in sheltered workshops. However, with disability awareness spreading and more people with disabilities employed, sheltered workshops seem a bit out of place. Of course, they have services for their workers, but they also don’t pay them a livable wage. Many of these employees might feel happier working in stores, restaurants, and other locations where they can make at least minimum wage.

What is Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act?

It’s pretty ironic that some parts of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which states the rights that employers and employees have in the workplace, aren’t fair at all to people with disabilities. Section 14(c) of this act states that employers who receive a special certificate from Wage and Hour Division can legally pay their workers with disabilities salaries under the federal minimum wage. Often, the employers who ask for these certificates are workshops and other organizations that mainly employ disabled workers. While many of us live in states with rising minimum wages, these employers often pay people with disabilities are just a few dollars an hour — completely legally.

In 2014, legislators changed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to expand opportunities for workers with disabilities to find work. This also included carefully examining sheltered workshops and similar programs, but in the years since these changes, not much has actually changed. The law still technically says that people with disabilities can be paid subminimum wages, and sheltered workshops continue taking advantage of disabled workers.

Why do subminimum wage laws matter?

If you don’t live with a disability, you may not feel like this issue doesn’t concern you, but it still matters. Anyone can become disabled at any time, but the value of our work stays the same whether we’re able-bodied and neurotypical or disabled. People with disabilities regularly face discrimination, but they work hard and find creative solutions to problems, and companies should compensate them fairly. Sadly, the law won’t allow all people to receive equal pay — and it’s just as awful that most people don’t realize that employers can pay people with disabilities substantially less than minimum wage.

If you have the opportunity, speak out against sheltered workshops and fight against disability discrimination in your own workplace. Hopefully, with time, the law will change, and all people with disabilities can make just as much as their able-bodied peers do.

Featured Photo by Galeria Estacao on Unsplash.


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