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.

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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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