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Sheltered Workshops Offer Little Benefit, Studies Find


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Sheltered workshops are significantly more costly, yet no more effective than supported, competitive employment at ensuring job prospects for individuals with disabilities, new research suggests.

Two new studies — one focusing on adults with autism and the other looking at individuals with cognitive disabilities — compared the outcomes of those who started out in sheltered employment with those who did not.

Segregated work environments are intended to teach those with disabilities job skills so that they can later move into positions with mainstream employers, supporters of the programs say. But the findings of both studies are sharply calling this premise into question.

In both cases, researchers found that people who spent time in sheltered workshops were no more likely to be employed, but earned less and were more costly to support than their peers who did not start out in segregated environments.

In the study focusing on adults with autism, researchers report in the journal Autism that those who started in sheltered employment and later moved to competitive work situations earned more than 30 percent less and cost about twice as much to support.

“Results presented here suggest that individuals with ASD achieve better vocational outcomes if they do not participate in sheltered workshops prior to enrolling in supported employment,” wrote researchers from Kent State University and Virginia Commonwealth University in the study.

The findings are based on an analysis of vocational rehabilitation records for 430 individuals with autism, half of whom worked in sheltered employment and half of whom did not. The individuals in the two groups were matched with each other based on diagnosis and gender to offer comparable samplings.

The researchers said that their results mirror those of a second study expected to be published soon in the Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation. That study used similar methods to examine the experiences of nearly 10,000 adults with cognitive disabilities.

The implications of the findings are significant, the researchers said, noting that currently more than a half million Americans with mental and physical disabilities work in some 7,000 sheltered workshops across the country.

However, the reasons why those without sheltered workshop experience fared better are not entirely clear.

“Participating in sheltered workshops diminished the future outcomes achieved once individuals became competitively employed, perhaps because the skills and behaviors individuals learned in sheltered workshops had to be ‘unlearned’ in order for the workers to be successful in the community,” according to the research team that assessed the group with autism.

Other factors like the severity of an individual’s behavior challenges might also play a role, they said.

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Comments (40 Responses)

  1. Carlos Sanchez says:

    I call BS on the opening statement.

  2. tfred says:

    ‘Other factors like the severity of an individual’s behavior challenges might also play a role, they said.’

    Wish the author had also given several paragraphs to this one line and not just tag it at the end. Think behavior challenges might play a role in successful community employment? I never thought of that.

  3. Linda Strain says:

    I have worked with young adults with cognitive and physical disabilities since 1970 and I believe that what this research data shows is true. I feel more than ever that job skill instruction must take place in natural environments out in the community for real learning to take place. Further more, I believe that these are the critical experiences that lead to “real” jobs in the community. The problem is that we must get our adult services funding to follow this premise. I am currently involved in a Project SEARCH program and wish that we had 20 of them. SEARCH is a great example of a work immersion program that leads to learning real job skills and employment.

  4. yaya says:

    I agree with Carlos………the sheltered workshop here in our county is flourishing, as are the clients!……..Its a good fit for us and the community is 100% behind our efforts……..success depends on different things for different folks!

  5. Aray says:

    Content easy to say and believe correct. Given all parameters, almost every level of support and service has value. My question… For those not entering the workforce through a sheltered workshop… is it possible they started with more skills?

  6. Mary says:

    The last sentence says it all. People who start out in sheltered workshops may start there because they have more challenges to overcome than those who are able to start out in competitive employmment. And if that is true, it just makes sense that they would cost more to support when they do get to places of competitive employment. In that case it would’t be fair to state that the sheltered workshop “diminished the future outcomes”.

  7. janner says:

    I responded to a very similar article the Disability Scoop printed on Jan. 19, 2011 called Sheltered Workshops : No Better than Institutions, Report Finds.
    My opinion has not changed. A sheltered workshop can play a very important role in the lives of our most cognitively and behaviorally challenged family members. Not everyone is able to work out in the community : Sensitivity to noise and commotion, impulsive or aggressive behavior, and the high level of supervision needed, make it very difficult for some of the intellectually disabled to work successfully in the commuinity. My son is 33 now, and did work in a sheltered workshop until it was closed by the state in 2009 because of the federal mandate. He was able to get out of the house 4 mornings a week, do a productive piecemeal type job with the assistance of 2 staff, and he got to talk to his friends he saw there. In his case, and for several others, the workshop offers a purpose to their day and an opportunity for socialization, even if they are never able to achieve the level of behavior expected out in the community. It is TOTAL generalization to say that sheltered workshops are bad for everyone. Now that they have taken away that option for him and others, there is no work at all. They have fallen through the cracks and the “inclusionists” don’t seem to notice.

  8. Keenan Wellar says:

    From 20 years of practical experience of having supported people who have virtually identical profiles and comparing those who went into sheltered workshops and stayed, those who never did, and those who went into a sheltered workshop and left, the most employable and those who never went into the sheltered workshop to begin with. These are not the first studies to clear show that the so-called “transitional” nature of sheltered workshops is a myth – they are rarely journeys, and are more commonly destinations. It is entirely illogical that congregated a bunch of people with disabilities in a fake work-like environment will help them work alongside the full scope of citizens in a real workplace. There are many “assumed norms” in play with respect to those who deny the lack of efficacy of sheltered workshops – it is deficit thinking as regards people with intellectual disabilities and as regards the community and employers.

  9. David Mulvey says:

    The studies described do not seem to be based on matched groups where Sheltered Employment or Supported Employment were randomly selected out of High School. More skilled less challenged students are the ones most likely to go right into supported employment, while those with more significant vocational challenges are more likely to start in sheltered employment. The outcomes reported by the study are much more likely to reflect that fact and do not indicate poorer outcomes because of starting in sheltered work.

  10. Rose Surface says:

    Maybe one of the biggest reasons individuals who are going to sheltered workshops are farther behind others who are in community is because when you put more than one individual with different abilites in a setting, they degress because of the setting and learn negative behaviors from others. How can any staff properly take care of 2-4 different abilities persons and do any kind of proper instructing. I’m a parent of a 39 yr old man who has autism. He is non verbal and his communication skills are very low. My son will never be in a sheltered workshop. One of the greatest gifts God gave to me was having me become employed at a sheltered workshop while my son was still in the school system. Believe me, that was one of the greatest lessons I learned, and from that time on, I knew that my son would never go there.

  11. deefreddy says:

    I am not surprised by the findings. Students with the most severe disabilities and behavior challenges are sheltered during most if not all of their elementary, middle, high school and adult transition years in sheltered classrooms with other severely disabled students, working with one-to-one adult supervision. They never receive the real-life training and positive behavior supports that could really make a difference in their post-school outcomes. We need to do better. Sheltered workshops, while necessary at this time because so many students could never make it in supported employment, do not help individuals flourish. The education models need to change, the adult support providers need to change, and the adult funding models need to change. We need to stop focusing on how “behavioral challenges” and “cognitive challenges” prevent people from being accepted in our society, and work on improving our education and lives of students with disabilities by providing high quality education, positive behavior supports, and support for families. Only then will sheltered workshops be no longer needed.

  12. Keenan Wellar says:

    Further study using matched groups is called for.

    But many of us complete these studies every year – when peers graduate from the same school programs, all of whom are streamed/groomed for sheltered workshops, and you have some who choose the labour market and end up with jobs, and some who choose the workshop go there and stay there. I am talking about graduating classes where 100% were assumed to be heading to sheltered workshops but those who did not get paid employment in the community and those who go to the workshops do not transition.

  13. Ben Harper says:

    If the ONLY Purpose of Sheltered Workshops are to train for competive employ. I would agree with the article…However, one of your other articles states many adults with disabilities do nothing all day. This is one of the many secondary purposes of SW. To employ the hard to employ or unemployable.

  14. Gail says:

    Go Keenan and deefreddy. Stats show that it takes 38 years to “graduate” from a sheltered workshop with the appropriate skills to get a job. It used to be 67 – I’m not sure what’s improved except that people demand to leave more often than before. For many people this doesn’t happen, it’s an average, people are ready for retirement then… overall – where to learn is on the real job. Challenging behaviors come from a variety of places – they are reactions to lack of control, not living up to one’s ability, being frustrated with one’s situation, not gaining in life, not ever learning another way – because you never had to….

  15. Thomas Charles Wood says:


    No “real job skills are taught”.

    Being an adult with Autism & a milder form of Cerebral Palsy, I was temporarilly placed in one in 1986. With my IQ of 135, I was bored out of my mind as a graduate of Wentworth Institute with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electronic Engineering Technology (WIT Class of 1985).

    The “staff” there “treated me like a toddler”.


    “I am not a Baby”.

    I live in the “real world”, not the “Toddler Day-Care for Developmentally-Disabled Adults” which is what a Sheltered Workshop is.

    I can Drive my disability-adapted 2008 Ford Ranger Pickup Truck.
    I am a volunteer for a community public-access CATV Station/Studio.
    Lastly, as an Autistic with Cerebral Palsy, I am a “Deacon” in my chosen faith community.

    Even “without employment”, I “have a life”, even though retired prematurely on SSDI.

    I think that “Sheltered Workshops” destroy the potential of every developmentally-disabled adult “dumped” like trash into them.

    I appologize for my “honest” thoughts…

  16. Shadowcat says:

    If Sheltered Workshops are such a great idea, then why aren’t the people who are in this program, taught adequate job skills? It seems they are just taught the basics and that’s it.

  17. says:

    If the only purpose of sheltered workshops is to create the ability for pwd to matriculate to mainstream work positions then their usefulness may require a more a detailed assessment. But if socialization and daily activity are also purposes being striven for then there will remain an economic conflict. The amount of funding required to operate such workshops will forever in the eyes of some be a waste.

  18. Anne says:

    Autism and cognitive disabilities were the two ‘categories’ of disability studied. No mention of the severity of these disabilities; and what about all the workshop participants with physical disabilities, multiple disabilities, and severe cognitive diabilities who will never be able to be competitively employed? Don’t they deserve a place to go after schooling is finished? Should they sit at home 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives? Don’t their caregivers deserve a respite or a chance to be employed themselves? Plus some of these workshops also contribute to the economy by producing or packaging commercial products for other companies at a reasonable rate.

  19. hdemic says:

    Alot of these workshops are the aids wiping tables or just aids folding towels. Alot of these kids will never be able to go into the work forces. The other half that are functional are stuck in sheltered workshops that never teach anything. Its just away to take up time. Than the kids that can actually do things start to act out from pure bordem. Its a vicious circle and and a reduntant issue.
    mom of disabled chid

  20. Roberta Gallant says:

    Sheltered workshops always give people with disabilities lousy paychecks
    for piece work. All of the sheltered workshops should now close their doors
    to the disability public. They stink!

  21. Kathryn Protenic says:

    As a retired special ed teacher of students with multiple disabilities (39 years), I have seen some of my former students go to work, some go to sheltered workshops, and some sit home. I am in constant contact with my alumni and their families, and know that many of them cannot function in competitive employment due to the severity or number of their disabilities. Their life is at the sheltered workshop, as it was at school in their younger years. Yes, this may not prepare them for employment, but many of the clients in sheltered workshop are the ones with the most severe disabilities to begin with. As someone else said, why should they sit home all day and have no life? Why should their mothers not be able to continue to work once they leave school? This opinion is the result of looking at everything as black or white. Not everyone needs the same things. A person with severe behavior problems, toileting and feeding needs, cognitive disabilities, or a combination, is not likely to find employment in the community. But they are worth something, and should have a chance to make whatever contribution they can .
    Thank you for giving us this forum.

  22. jack Campbell says:

    I have been in the field of Vocational Rhabilitation and supporting people with disability for 35 years. Sheltered workcenters at least in our case have been a critical component in the continum of care and treatment as well as a stepping stone to community employment for over 1000 people during my tenure. Yes, there are people who remain in sheletered employment by their choice for a variety of reasons that I have no reason to pass judgement upon whether they are making a good choice or bad choice, it is simply their choice whehter I agree with that choice or not. I’m not sure where the train went off the tracks that empowered a small vocal group of advocates and professionals to become self annointed and speak on behalf of all families and individuals who actually value the sheltered workshop. The hardest endeavor for people in this field is to balance what they percieve to be the right directions in employment versus what other people value. The hardest thing I deal with is the disrespectful and condescending tone advocates and professionals take in attacking sheltered workshops. Who are you to judge others?

  23. R.A.L. says:

    Society has hurt most of those with disability for years. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment made over the years was allowing individuals with disability and their families to choose what they need and want. I suspect those who negate the value of workcenters probably experienced poorly funded,poorly staffed and boring centers. Real advocates understand. The person with 135IQ was wronged. Glad he got what he was capable of. There are 13 million Americans out of work today. Why would anyone want to deny a person with severe disability the opportunity to work at their maximum potential.? Workcenters are needed and valuable unless you want these people to disappear completely .There will always be those who find fault.

  24. Paul Harvey says:

    I am a parent and advocate and prior to retirement an employer of people with developmental disabilities including ASD at our Corporate Headquarters. I was one of two employers invited to participate in a summit in Washington, DC which was charged to develop employment recommendations to then President Clinton. Sheltered workshops were the top focus. All academia wanted to immediately close all workshops for the very reasons cited in your study. I expressed the following against the immediate closings:
    • Employer demand for employees was not (and is not today) nearly sufficient to absorb those pushed out of these programs.
    o Studies do not consider the emotional or financial impact to the family when they now have to arrange day time care of their adult (this may require a family member to quit their job). The emotional impact to the adult of not having anything to look forward to or the opportunity to socialize.
    • Yes there are some terrible stories of treatment and ideal time at work shelters. Plus extremely low wages (my son has experience all types of employment including a work shelter where his check was often less than a $1 when it probably cost $30+ dollars to cut the check – but it beat staying at home).
    • Yes, there are many cases where the higher achievers are held in work shelters so the work shelter can meet their needed work load and are not encouraged to see supported on individual employment.
    • The concept of a “work shelter” accounts for a huge amount of employment – when you see a industrial park many are relatively small businesses with an office or two up front and work areas in back where employees assemble or package product that either the company makes or they sell these services to other companies – often they are referred to as “fulfillment houses”. Some require very skilled workers and some lower level skills or a combination.
    So the real problem with work shelters for the developmentally disabled is they are unable to attract high demand for their service and incorporate “the non-developmental disable population” that may be needed to perform higher skill tasks. Goodwill donation distribution centers are a good example of this concept. Also needed are case workers who periodically insure their client is challenged and where appropriate seeks other employment opportunities. Unfortunately creating this high level of demand may require equipment either capital or expense.

  25. Alexandria Davis says:

    Beats being at home? How can you say working for slave wages every day beats being at home? How would you like it if you made $2 or less an hour and someone said, “Oh yeah, you make hardly anything for your work every day, but at least it beats being at home and you get to socialize.” We may be disabled, but that does not make us less American! I am totally visually impaired and I am fighting to end this slave wage places.

  26. Bel says:

    Can I raise the question.. has the article clarified whether these two variable (ie. sheltered workshops and poor employment outcomes) are actually causal or merely correlated? It seems logical to me that an individual with a more severe disability would be more likely to need/agree to attend a sheltered workshop, thus also resulting in poorer outcomes should they wish to enter an open labour force.

    I am an Occupational Therapist who has worked in Disability and employment for a number of years (in both sheltered and open environments) and experience suggests to me that some people with a disability have needs to great or would simply function better suited in a sheltered environment, as it is too difficult, traumatic or too costly to find them work in the open labour market. This is not a bad thing! Sheltered workshops, if run effectively, add a significant value to society.

    I think that the final comment made in the article should prompt further investigation and serious thought before statements, such as the article title, are made.

  27. NN says:

    These studies only prove one thing to me, you can make a study say just about anything you’d like it to. The final sentence might be the main reason for anyone’s success, or failure for that matter.

  28. NN says:

    My suggestion for a follow up article would be “Work Training Centers, The People, The Training They Receive and Their Vital Role In Industry”. Now that would be a study!!

  29. Ramona Harper says:

    I wish these studies would consider how happy individuals are at their workplaces. Many have a hard time developing friendships with co-workers and feel isolated. Money is not the sole criteria that should be investigated in these studies. Quality of life is not a direct correlation to earnings for some people. I run a sheltered workshop that is filled with hard-working great people that truly enjoy coming to work. We are located in a small rural area and it has been tough to land community jobs for everyone. The people I work with feel valued and proud of what they are doing. I feel lucky to work with them too. It is this type of study that does not take into consideration the importance of the social aspect of work. In an ideal world; everyone would earn minimum wage or better; get to do a job they like; and work with people they like.

  30. Bonnie Hawley says:

    Rather than advocate for or against sheltered workshops, an issue which is polarizing our community, let’s advocate for appropriate supports for a meaningful life… if that is competitive employment, then that is great…if that means a person is volunteering in the community… that is great… if a person requires more support due to behavior that may eventually compromise the person’s dignity or safety, then let’s support that option too… the bottom line is not the setting, it is the advocacy for the funding that provides for the support that the person needs to lead a life of purpose, regardless if it is community employment or another option. That support can be an employment specialist, a behavioral specialist or independent living specialist. Let’s give everyone the chance to be supported in the way that leads to opportunities for meaningful life versus putting a label on what that setting might be….employment should always be the first option, but if that option does not work, for whatever reason, we need to have alternatives to offer so that the option for having a purposeful life is not lost in the sound of our advocacy for those who are able to work…. there is no one size fits all solution, let’s not make it sound like there is…or legislators will only fund one size. Let’s focus efforts on getting funding that allows for flexible supports for where ever the person is on the journey of life.

  31. Nicole LeBlanc says:

    Sheltered Workshops need to be outlawed!!! It is Child labor/Slavery!!!! Everyone deserves to be paid Fair Wages/livable wage!!! This is old school and the practice must stop now!!!! Our society would be better off without it and Given that we have an aging workforce this is a perefect opportunity to boost disability employment and get employers to embrace hiring us!!! The Boomer arent going to be around Forever!!! We need the disability commnuity to make up the diffence!!! NO MORE Sub-Minimun wage Equal Pay for Eqaul Work Now!!!!!!!

  32. Christopher Clem says:

    Sheltered Workshops & sheltered work centers must be outlawed by federal as they are hate crimes against the so-called disabled which there are none and be replaced with a federal funded make-work jobs program for almost all adults as a safety net for the homeless and those with no incomes. I love a socialist america!!!!

  33. Don Weikle says:

    Sheltered workshops offer little benefit, except of course to those who choose them. There is a myth that shteltered workshops are not a part of the community although they were founded by community members and only exist because of their vibrant links to and relationships with the community. There is a myth that people who work in them are there agains their will although everyone who works in our workshop is there by choice and, should the person desire to work elsewhere in the community, can inform the person who will assist them in doing so by going to her office that is just off of the workshop. There are no chains, no walls, and no barriers.

    I have supported individuals with intellectual disabilities since 1972, and the first lesson I learned was that the people I supported would tell me where they wanted to live and work. It is a basic part of Western culture for people to make that choice. So the dogmatists who demand an “inclusion only” world are no different than those who fought for a segregated world where people with intellectual disabilities were confined either to institutions or kept at home. They are asking the wrong question. The question is, “Where do you want to live/work?” Is is then our responsiblity to ensure that the person’s choice is honored wheter that choice is politically correct or whether it meets our professional expectations as “appropriate.” We do not have time for ideology.

  34. Donna Nelson says:

    Wouldn’t other factors needed to be considered beyond the individuals diagnosis? I work in a rehabilitation facility where there are supported employment services available as well as facility based work. When an individual is referred there are many factors considered beyond that initial information. I believe that the expectations of the family and prior experience in the preparing someone for the world of work. The availability of jobs in which natural supports can be built are also likely to lead more successful outcomes. Initial placements in a sheltered settings allow individuals to learn routines and expectations that will make it more likely that the worker and the employer will have a positive experience.

  35. Clancy says:

    If you do not have a son or daughter in a sheltered work enviornment than perhaps you really dont understand the positive aspects of these work programs. I will not speak for all but I can say that it has been a very rewarding experience for my older child. It is not a sweat shop and the conditions are very nice. He works in a program run by United Cerebral Palsy. He is severely disabled and I do not see him working in an integrated work enviornment. He earns by piece rate which is a fair way of paying him as I know he cannot be productive enough to earn the prevailing wage. He has lots of friends in the shop and is picked up and dropped off by the agencys bus program. It allows his mother and I to work while he is at work. He also attends groups at the shop, eats lunch together with his peers and earns his paycheck every two weeks. We meet periodically with his case manager etc etc. All I can say he is very happy in his work program and is so excited when he brings home his paycheck! Why do all the “I know whats better for your son” advocates who want to close his work program, the one thing he cherishes so much?? Please, mind your own business, because you do not know what is good for my son. You can show me all the studies you want…the only thing for sure is that care about is the his smile on his face when he talks about his day.

  36. tim bennett says:

    the sheltered workshops have been around for 170 years it’s time to get rid of sheltered workshop they lead to a life of poverty they don’t teach no job skills it leads to a dead end life subminimum wages are illegal the fair labor standards act of 1938 section 14c needs to be phased goodwill industries runs a sheltered workshop i worked 34 days at goodwill industries in greensboro at 1235 south eugene street it’sa joke they don’t offer job training skills they make the disabled / non disabled at subminimum wage the state of north carolina should phase out sheltered it’s immorally wrong to keep these so called sheltered workshops open it’s time for the 19th century workshops to be closed

  37. tim bennett says:

    i agree with with charles thomas woods sheltered do not teach real job skills goodwill industries is one example they want you to come back and take a work adjustment class my vocational rehabalitational counselor told me i have to work another 30 days june 20th was my last day i meet with my vr cuonselor the work adjustment coordiantor bruce berkel i told them i’m not coming back the section 14c law of 1938 needs to be repealed segregation in sheltered workshops is not the anwser they should be freed from slavery disabled/non disabled have the right to get jobs in the community not be sheltered for life

  38. tim bennett says:

    goodwill industries and other non profit sheltered workshops it costs $22,000/year to train disabled workers the non disabled workers i worked at goodwill industries in greensboro for 34 days it’s a waste of state and federal tax money to work there say after day doing the same dull boring thing they don’t teach job skills goodwill industries and sheltered workshops are a joke supported emlpoyment $9,600/year the disabled/non disabled should be allowed to work in the community not sheltered workshops as low as0.01 cent/hour it’s time to for goodwill industries and the sheltered workshops to be closed down for good i’m opposed to these so called sweatshops north carolina it’s time to end sheltered workshops

  39. tim bennett says:

    sheltered workshops don’t prepare the disabled for work outside their workshop $22,000/year versus $9,600/year in supported employment disabled workers deserve a minimum not subminimum wages section 14c should be phased out goodwill industries claims they can’t pay minimum wage to their disabled workers they can pay it ceos should give up their salary and work for zero $000,000.00 that’s what they deserve zero pay

  40. tim bennett says:

    as a former client of vocational rehabilitation i’m glad i got out of the so called sheltered workshop program goodwill industries the pay you get is based on productivity it’s a dead end they don’t teach you job skills they are like the sheltered workshops you don’t learn nothing to any one who is thinking about working at goodwill industries or sheltered workshop they are the same thing it’s boring the disabled/ non disabled can never leave the sheltered workshop system it leads to poverty $1.00/hour or less it’s not enough pay to get what some one needs to buy food it all comes down to this the sheltered workshop directors and goodwill industries ceo’s support the candidates for u.s. house and senate to get more money to fund the subminimum wage pay it’s time to end the section 14c known as the fair labor standards act of 1938

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