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Justice Department Criticizes Rhode Island Sheltered Workshop

The city of Providence, R.I., has shut down a program for intellectually disabled teenagers and adults after a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found that people in the program were working at manual labor for little or no pay.

The Harold A. Birch Vocational School program currently has an enrollment of 85, which accounts for virtually all of the students with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the 23,600-student district. WPRI, the CBS television affiliate serving Providence, has covered the issue extensively, and has a link to the 17-page letter from the Justice Department outlining the department's findings.

The vocational program violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the letter noted: Students worked at jobs such as bagging and labeling items for 50 cents to $2 an hour, and were given few opportunities to find jobs paying competitive wages. Instead, most were funneled into another sheltered work program where they were again paid below-minimum wage. Disability law requires that such programs offer the "most integrated setting" possible.

WPRI reports that the state of Rhode Island and Providence will stop enrolling new students and adults in sheltered workshop programs. They will receive "supported employment" and integrated services that will allow them to work a traditional 40-hour week at competitive wages. In addition, the principal of the school has resigned.

Last year, advocacy groups representing people with disabilities in Oregon filed a class-action lawsuit against the state, saying that adults there were also working menial jobs for low pay, with no opportunity for integrated, competitive employment. Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, issued an executive order in April that would reduce funding to sheltered workshop programs and increase the number of people with developmental disabilities in the general workforce. (The text of the executive order is here.)

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