OUR OPINION: Missouri shortchanging disabled workers

Missouri is shortchanging its disabled workers by paying them less than $4 an hour on average at its sheltered workshops.

Today, more than 5,000 adults with disabilities are employed at Missouri's 97 sheltered workshop. Many of the workshops are light manufacturing assembly lines. Several others are recycling facilities. Their operations are primarily sustained through the sales of the goods and services produced by their employees, in addition to some state and local funding.

So, the disabled workers, some who are making about $1 an hour, are producing valued goods and services in these workshops. And yes, it is legal to pay them subminimum wages under a federal law enacted more than 80 years ago.

But by design, that law presupposes the workshops are to be a temporary measure -- a training process to allow adults with disabilities to transition into the regular workforce.

Most other states pursue that goal.

Missouri is an outlier.

Nearly 45 percent of the 5,000 Missouri disabled workers have worked at the workshops at least a decade; 20 percent have been there for two decades.

Very few Missouri sheltered workshop employees "graduate." From January 2017 through June 2022, only 2.3 percent of all sheltered workshop employees in Missouri left for a regular job, according to an analysis of employment data by the Kansas City Beacon and ProPublica.

Missouri officials seem OK with the low graduation rate, saying the workshops are not focused on helping their employees transition into the regular workforce. But state law clearly says the workshops are intended to help these adults "progress toward normal living."

How does one define "normal living" as working at a $1 an hour job?

But many Missourians, some who serve in the Capitol, are unconvinced the vision of the law is achievable.

"This wonderful idea that we're going to put everybody in the mainstream and everybody will be able to participate and function perfectly in this economy isn't true," state Sen. Bill White, of Joplin, said. "They're just not as able to be as fast, as productive and as efficient."

Advocates for adults with disabilities say Missouri's stance is treating adults with disabilities as second-class citizens, keeping them segregated and reliant on disability payments or family support for their entire lives.

"They lose the opportunity to craft their own life," said Judith Gross, director of the Center on Community Living and Careers at Indiana University. "They will never have freedom of choice of recreation, nor where they live, nor how they make their money."

Again, Missouri is an outlier.

At least 14 states have adopted laws or policies that completely phase out sheltered workshops or subminimum wages. At least 10 others have considered similar actions in recent years.

Advocates point to the long-term successes of states like Vermont -- the first to eliminate sheltered workshops.

Within three years of closing its last sheltered workshop in 2002, Vermont officials reported about 80 percent of the facility's former employees had transitioned into the regular workforce.

No one is disputing the value of sheltered workshops; they are locations where an adult with disabilities can discover the dignity, pride, income and sense of self-reliance that a job can provide.

But the workshop should be a first step, not a destination.

Missouri is simply disobeying the law and is not treating disabled workers with the respect they deserve. As a result, we are shortchanging a potentially brighter future for our fellow Missourians.

Missouri's sheltered workshop system needs to be updated and reformed so it fulfills its statutory requirement to help adults with disabilities "progress toward normal living."

In the words of Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist who lived with motor neuron disease for more than 50 years: "Disability need not be an obstacle to success."

-- News Tribune

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