Work in progress: Local nonprofits concerned about proposed law change

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, November 3, 2013

JANESVILLE—It sounds like a good thing.

House of Representatives Bill 831, the “Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013,” would no longer allow businesses to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.

What could be wrong with that?

Plenty, according advocates for people with disabilities and nonprofits who work with them.

HR 831 would effectively close sheltered workshop programs, leaving a significant number of people with disabilities without any work at all, advocates say.

“It's the big push coming out of Washington,” said Gary Bersell, executive director of KANDU Industries. “It would prohibit the use of Medicaid funds for participants in segregated programs.”

Local nonprofits such as Riverfront and KANDU provide “prevocational services” for people with cognitive disabilities and physical disabilities.

Those services range from job coaching in the community to training good work habits such as arriving on time and proper behavior for the workplace.  

They also include a variety of paid work in what the federal government refers to as a “sheltered workshop,” a business that allows people with disabilities to work at either piece-rate or at a commensurate wage. These usually are separate businesses, places that cater to and offer other services for people with disabilities.

Sheltered workshops have critics, too.

The National Disability Rights Network issued a report in 2011 called “Segregated and Exploited: The Failure of the Disability Service System to Provide Quality Work.”

In 2012, the group applauded a case filed by Disability Rights Oregon on behalf of a group of people who wanted to work in community settings, but “were segregated into sheltered workshops,” according to a news release by the National Disability Rights Network.

Although the case was thrown out on a technicality, “the court determined that the plaintiffs have valid claims under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and that the integration mandate applies to the provision of employment-related services” the news release said.

For some advocates, the right of disabled people to work in an integrated workplace is similar to the right to live in the community or to be integrated into the public school system.

“The courts have long said it is discrimination to require people with disabilities to live in institutions to receive services,” said Curtis Decker, National Disability Rights Network executive director. “It is gratifying to now know people with disabilities can now look to the courts to ensure they do not face the same discrimination in the workplace."


Pay at sheltered workshops is determined by studying similar jobs in the community.

“We do wage studies in the community,” Bersell said. “If assemblers in the community are making, say, $10 an hour, and a person with disabilities can do that job at 25 percent (of average speed), then they would make $2.50 an hour.”

The goal is to have everyone work in the community, Bersell said.

That usually involves finding a workplace where individuals' skills can be used and providing on-site job coaching.

In the past two years, 94 people from KANDU have been placed in the community, Bersell said.

“We're very proud of that,” Bersell said. “But one size doesn't fit all.”

Often, even people who work in the community only do so on a part-time basis. On the other days, they return to KANDU for work or other activities.

KANDU and similar workplaces also serve as social networks for people with disabilities.

Bersell worries that if people with disabilities don't have an appropriate place to go during they day, they won't have enough to do “and could get in trouble” and end up in the criminal justice system.

Andy Anselmi is regional director for Riverfront, the La Crosse-based company that provides a variety of services to individuals with disabilities. In Janesville, more than 100 people receive “prevocational services” from the company.

He estimated at least half of the 100 individuals who work at Riverfront will never be able to work in the community.

“They need personal care assistance, they might have medical needs to take care of, such as insulin checks,” Anselmi said. “And then there are people who have unique behavioral challenges.

“We do offer unique solutions to address those issues in the community,” Anselmi said. “But it's not one size fits all.”


John Hanewall, director of Rock County's Developmental Disabilities Board, thinks segregated work places have a role.

“I think that places such as KANDU and Riverfront provide services for these individuals so they can work,” Hanewall said. “They're definitely a needed entity.”

There aren't enough jobs in the community for people with cognitive disabilities, he said.

And even if there were, many people with developmental disabilities also have physical disabilities.

“Who is going to modify some of these jobs, who is going to develop assistive devices so people can work? Hanewall said. “Is an employer going to be willing to do that? Probably not.”

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