Currently, many people with intellectual, developmental and other disabilities spend their days in sheltered workshops working for a sub-minimum wage. They are segregated from the rest of society and perpetually dependent on Medicaid to pay for their placement at the workshop.
It’s a shame because people who work in the community have been shown to be happier and to become increasingly independent. Using the supported employment services that are entitled to disabled people under the Americans with Disabilities Act, people who work in sheltered workshops can be successful in integrated employment. Sadly, children often leave secondary education with no guidance as to their future beyond joining a sheltered workshop. Less than 5% of individuals in workshops ever transition to employment in the community.
In 2014, a federal law was passed that takes a substantial step towards ensuring access to supported employment. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires individuals with disabilities who are 24 years of age or younger to have received employment services, vocational services and career counseling before allowing sheltered workshops to hire them. In addition, it also requires that people currently in sheltered workshops receive information about the other options available to them.
The Public Interest Law Center recently provided comments to the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) on how to improve the proposed regulations to implement WIOA. Although WIOA has significant promise, it is essential that it be implemented properly. Several of our recommendations are detailed below, but you can read the letter in its entirety here.
We applaud the inclusion of interim eligibility provisions for Social Security recipients. In Pennsylvania most individuals have to wait 60 days before they are able to receive services. Even more puzzling, severely disabled people (who are supposed to receive the highest level of support) often have to wait up to 18 months for an extended evaluation to be completed before they can even explore the possibility of employment. Individuals who might even already have a job offer shouldn’t wait 18 months to receive the help they need to succeed.
In addition, we think the regulations involving the maximum time limit to receive services need to involve the cooperation of different agencies to be effective. In Pennsylvania it is difficult to navigate the system to received supported employment services. Individuals have to request services from the Office of Vocational Services (OVR) and be rejected before they can receive services from Medicaid. The rejection from OVR discourages people and some do not bother applying for Medicaid-funded employment services. Cooperation between the state Medicaid agency and vocational rehabilitation agency is needed.
We advised OSERS that additional detail was needed in the regulations regarding inter-agency cooperative agreements. The current regulations do not make clear how such agreements will ensure effective implementation. Requiring inter-agency agreements to detail who should pay for each specific service and requiring vocational rehabilitative career counselors to attend meetings to design client’s Individual Education Plans or Individual Support Plans would facilitate collaboration. Otherwise, “agency disputes over responsibilities and a general failure to communicate” will continue to predominate and people will not get the help they need.
We hope OSERS incorporates our feedback into the final regulations. That said, Pennsylvania also has to do its part to make a successful transition away from sheltered workshops and toward supported employment. Currently Pennsylvania is leaving federal money on the table. The federal government is willing to give Pennsylvania’s OVR an additional 18 million dollars if the state would agree to contribute 5 million dollars. Increasing OVR funding by 23 million dollars would allow Pennsylvania to better comply with WIOA and work towards a future where everyone can work alongside one another for a fair wage.