Steve DeSisto is focused on his work. With a pair of pliers he pulls a piece of copper no larger than a pair of staples off a two-inch plastic arm. In front of him the white plastic pieces are neatly lined up like soldiers. Steve will be paid for every piece of copper salvaged from the plastic, evidently from a component to a device that was either over produced or failed to work as designed.
Steve is motivated. He works quickly. He also dreams of another job. He would like to work at Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club, where he thinks he would be good at stocking shelves.
Gayle Reid is confident Steve can do it, that he’ll get a job. She encourages him. He turned his head, beaming with the approval.
Close by, in another room, Robin was lying on an elevated gurney. She, too, was smiling. A strap held her from rolling off. Her knees were pulled up in a semi-fetal position. She had socks on her tiny feet, but no shoes. She loves the attention she was getting, especially comments about her blue blouse. She said something, but it’s impossible for a stranger to know what she is saying.
Both Steve and Robin are clients at the J. Arthur Memorial Trudeau Center. Both are at the Trudeau sheltered workshop on Commonwealth Avenue.
While not singled out, the Trudeau sheltered workshop is one of seven in the state for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) that fail to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to a 32-page report issued Jan. 6 by the U.S. Department of Justice.
In part, the report says the state has not taken efforts to get the disabled out of the workshops and into the workplace.
“In Rhode Island,” it reads, “in spite of the state’s significant commitment to ensuring that people can live in integrated settings, thousands of individuals still spend the majority of their daytime hours receiving employment and day care services in segregated sheltered workshops and facility-based day programs, even though they are capable of and want to receive employment and day services in the community.”
It goes on to say 46.2 percent of the roughly 800 in sheltered workshops have been there for a decade and 34.2 percent for 15 years or more. On average, it says, these people are making $2.21 per hour as compared to those with IDD receiving individualized supported services that make an average of $8.92 per hour.
“Such unjustified daily segregation firmly places many of the benefits of community life beyond the reach [of people] with disabilities, even though they are residing in the community,” the report finds.
“It isn’t a sweat shop,” says Trudeau President Don Armstrong. “It’s a place to socialize as well as work.”
That was evident during a visit Friday. Clients like Steve, Roz, Wendy and even Beth Armstrong, Don’s daughter, paused to chat with one another and share a laugh. They worked on a series of tasks. In addition to recovering copper, they cut open bags of soap so the soap could be recycled, they measured and cut light chains and cut postage stamp-sized pieces of cloth that Tiffany will use in packaging charms.
Beth has a job at Crayons Early Care & Education Center but chooses to return to the workshop on Fridays to be with her friends.
“I love this place,” she said with unabashed enthusiasm.
Don estimates Beth is one of 50 who in recent years has transitioned into the workplace. Overall, the workshop serves about 100 clients, down about 20 from last year. It is downsizing by the month.
In another three years, he estimates, the workshop will be gone and those now in it will be in outside jobs. That is hard to imagine for Robin and the 20 others who were with her. None of them were doing piecework like Steve and Beth. Some moved about the room. Attendants accompanied most of them.
“This will be our biggest challenge,” said Armstrong.
Trudeau isn’t alone in dismantling its workshop. Over the next three to four years all seven of the state’s sheltered workshops will be gone.
“This is the next generation of change,” says Craig Stenning, director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH). He cites the evolution of dealing with people with disabilities, from keeping them in institutions, such as the Ladd School and other state institutions, to integrating them into the community in group homes and day centers.
Stenning finds the report incomplete in that it fails to consider changes made in the past two years, adding “I don’t particularly agree with recommendations” as many have been implemented and “we’re ahead of the game.”
At the conclusion of the report, Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels advised the state that, if concerns raised aren’t resolved, the Attorney General might initiate a suit.
Stenning takes offense to the characterization that workshops and day centers and wages below minimum wage are in some way violating the law. “They’re not illegal,” he said, “They’re certified by the Department of Labor.”
He notes that the report focuses on one of the larger sheltered workshops in the state – Training Through Placement in North Providence – that didn’t do a good job of record keeping, while failing to take into consideration other programs that were documenting their successes in getting jobs for clients.
Stenning said the BHDDH, which contracts with about 30 agencies and companies to provide services for the more than 3,200 with disabilities, has earmarked $5 million to employment programs. These funds will be spent in a variety of ways, from job coaches to people who will accompany clients to their jobs, and even be on site while they are working.
“The goal is to provide a means of transition over the next three years and to shut down the workshops,” he said.
He sees accomplishing that goal by integrating those with disabilities into the community by reaching out to organizations such as the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs and municipalities.
The Employment First policy adopted by BHDDH commits “to helping adults with developmental disabilities achieve self sufficiency through work readiness, work force development and job creation.”
It aims to achieve this goal through an extensive series of actions, ranging from expanding current efforts, to conducting awareness programs to collaborating with the “State Department of Education and Office of Rehabilitation Services to expand school to work transition programs for the developmentally disabled that expose students to job opportunities and enable them to graduate with jobs in place, and create a model to provide support for individuals interested in developing their own businesses.”
“This is not new to us,” said Gayle Reid, employment coordinator at Trudeau. “Employment first is the key.”
What Armstrong describes is coordinated efforts to identify the skills Trudeau clients have, what they want to do, and then to train and find a place for them in the community. Places where clients have jobs include Panera’s, Christmas Tree Shops, Stop & Shop, Citizens Bank, Home Depot, Dave’s Marketplace, 1149 Restaurant and Sedexo. The center’s Worksite Partners has changed its name to Employment Concepts, Linking Abilities to Opportunities. The center has job developers, job coaches and employment specialists. It also operates its own culinary program. The center is exploring the idea of creating companies to employ clients.
Reid sees onsite programs, such as the culinary program, as an opportunity for growth. Another is for clients to work in office environments, performing routine tasks such as shredding, where people with disabilities learn a job and take pride in performing it.
Already a lot is being done. The center tour included a stop at the “job club” where Doris Goldson works with five clients. These are clients with perceptible disabilities, yet nowhere near those of Robin and others. They talk about the need to have a résumé and what can be expected at a job interview. Doris asks the group to share their dreams.
Liz says she wants to author and illustrate books. Others dream of working on a cruise ship and being an actor. One says he wants to be a bus boy in a restaurant, which would appear to be within his reach.
“Each has different skills, we need to find it,” said Armstrong. He said placing clients in jobs is also going to entail convincing families for whom the current system has become a routine and comfortable.
“Working is going to be something new to them,” he said.
Workshop coordinator Doddie McShane rotated between tables, pausing to talk with clients and staff. She’s upbeat and energetic.
“We believe in these guys more than anybody,” she says.
What will become of those like Robin?
McShane has no delusions; regardless of the Department of Justice assertion that the state has failed segments of this population.
“Some are not going to work; work may not be the primary goal,” she said.
Armstrong points out that some clients are beyond the age of retirement and that others have no desire to work; yet these people find companionship and purpose at the workshop.
“We need to find different ways to find social activity,” he says. “We are trying to find activities that are meaningful and enjoyable, but also affordable.”