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New York Times Shines Spotlight on 'Sheltered Employment'

Many in the disability advocacy community have probably already read or heard about the  "The Boys in the Bunkhouse," the New York Times' moving account of men with intellectual disabilities kept isolated and working on an Iowa turkey-processing plant for decades, earning no more than $65 a month. An excerpt (but I really recommend you read the piece in its entirety):

The case against Henry's Turkey Service unfolded last April in a courtroom in Davenport, where the blond wood and recessed lighting clashed with descriptions of boarded windows and moldy mattresses.

The men of Atalissa did not testify. Many others spoke in their stead, including Sue A. Gant, a nationally recognized expert in developmental disabilities who had gotten to know the men. Decades earlier, she had helped thousands of people living in New York's infamous Willowbrook State School to integrate into the community.

In clinically precise language, Dr. Gant laid out the profound physical and mental harm done to each of the men. "The aggrieved workers could have enjoyed a good life," she testified. "Instead, they lost decades of healthy life experiences."

Legally, employers are allowed to pay subminimum wages to employees with physical or mental disabilities. The argument in favor of this practice is that without such an incentive, these employees would not be able to find work. But the Times piece notes that the U.S. Department of Justice has begun a crackdown on a "overreliance" on segregated workplaces, driven in part by the discovery of situations like those suffered by the Iowa men. A Justice Department investigation of a sheltered workshop in Rhode Island led to major changes in a school program for Providence,R.I., students with intellectual disabilities, which I wrote about in September. 

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