Congress has passed a bill that may change the way many people with disabilities or other special needs now move into the workforce. It amends the existing Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.
Currently, large numbers of people with significant special needs issues manage to find productive work experiences in what are known as “sheltered workshops.” These work groups consists of a workforce of people with special needs and some trained supervisory staff. The work often involves repetitive manual labor, such as sorting items into boxes or packaging.
The issue the bill is intended to address is that the workshops are segregated and pay substandard wages, often well below minimum wage, which they are permitted to do under an exception to the Fair Labor Standards Act. Many believe that far too many and too capable of people are being pushed into these workshops, when instead they could have actual competitive employment at higher wages along side non-disabled workers.
The bill attempts to address that issue in several ways — (1) it requires state vocational agencies to work with high schools to provide vocational training, including the development of “individual employment plans” while the student is still eligible for special education; and (2) it prohibits individuals under age 24 from accepting a sub-minimum wage position without first having tried to find competitive employment.
Some critics are concerned that sheltered workshops will close, and that many persons with special needs who depend on such opportunities to be productive in society might find less and less opportunity to participate in such programs.
For myself, it appears to be a step forward – perhaps most importantly in forcing agencies and schools to develop more meaningful transition plans. The idea of an individualized employment plan that is developed while the student is still in high school and receiving special education is, at least in theory, especially appealing.
Parents of students who might need such services should (as always) be pushing for meaningful vocational or employment guidance as soon as their children move into high school. Once the bill is signed and the program is in place, they should advocate as strongly with respect to the details of their child’s Employment Plan as they do now for their child’s Individualized Educational Plan.
All the best,