Last week, I hosted a plant tour at Confer Plastics for a half dozen clients of an agency that serves the mentally or physically handicapped by providing to them jobs and a variety of life services. This was the fourth such tour for the disabled in the past six months.
These agencies have been coming to our factory so we can help their counselors and team leaders educate their clients on the variety of jobs that are available across Western New York in regard to manufacturing, light assembly, warehousing and food processing. We expose them to the tasks involved, show them typical machinery and tools, and discuss the hard and soft skills needed in the workplace.
2017 has seen an increase in the number of these tours – and the need for them – because the disabled and their families have been placed in a difficult, if not dire, situation. Sheltered workshops, where disabled workers could secure consistent and productive employment under the guidance of trained and dedicated caretakers, are being phased out across the country.
Back in 1999, the US Supreme Court ruled that sheltered workshops segregate people, and in turn, violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. For the decade that followed the decision, there was little movement on it. But, since 2009, the US Department of Justice has been playing hardball with the states about this.
In response to the ruling and its enforcement, from 2012 to 2014 the Cuomo Administration developed a multi-pronged plan to bring about the demise of such worksites in the Empire State: The workshops had to incorporate those without disabilities into their employment (to the tune of 25 percent of the workforce) and become businesses instead of service agencies; existing disabled workers were grandfathered while new admissions into standard sheltered workshops weren’t allowed; and state funding of the workplaces was curtailed and ultimately fully cut.
Now, disabled workers are scrambling to find career paths and employers that are a fit for them and vice versa.
It’s not a good time for these individuals. The men and women who have toured the plant are unsure of their future and are scared of leaving the people and places that they’ve known for so long and have grown so comfortable with and loving of.
Will some of the disabled be able to handle the rigors of paced, competitive work and full shifts?
Will their new employers be as kind and understanding as those they’ll be leaving?
Do most businesses have the skill sets or personnel to manage those who need attention, help and encouragement?
Will the number crunchers in larger corporations be able to accept lower productivity and special accommodations?
Will there be a network of public and private services in play that will get the disabled the transportation, support and training they need while entering the general workforce?
Many of their parents and providers are as uncomfortable as the workers and have had called for the Cuomo Administration to suspend the closure of workshops for fear that many of the disabled would not be able to find gainful employment and support in corporate America. They believe that the handicapped would then become unemployed for the long term and require day services while not having the chance to hold a sense of purpose and be productive to the economy and world as everyone aspires to.
I’ve seen the worried faces of and had heart-to-heart conversations with the workers and families who will be deeply affected by this change in the world as they know it. It breaks my heart.
While there may have been altruistic goals in shutting down sheltered workplaces (everyone should be able to work in a mainstream environment regardless of race, creed, or disability), the hard reality of the matter is that they are needed.
In an attempt to do good the government is only doing harm to the disabled. Those with special needs value their ability to have a job, to make and assemble things, to have an impact on society. But now, all of that will be taken away from far too many of them.
From the 18 September 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers