A bipartisan deal is paving the way for Congress to require most people with disabilities to try competitive employment first before they could be employed by a sheltered workshop.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives said this week that they’ve come to an agreement on a long-delayed reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act. Within the proposal is a plan to dramatically alter the path from school to work for those with disabilities.

Currently, many individuals in special education leave high school and are referred directly to sheltered workshops where pay is often less than the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Under the proposed legislation, however, young people with disabilities in most cases would be required to pursue competitive, integrated employment.

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Under what’s known as section 511 of the bill, individuals with disabilities ages 24 and younger could not be employed by those paying so-called subminimum wage before seeking out vocational rehabilitation services, among other requirements.

Meanwhile, the legislation mandates that state vocational rehabilitation agencies work with schools to provide “pre-employment transition services” to all students with disabilities and such agencies would be required to devote at least 15 percent of their federal funding to help young people transition from school to work.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who initiated the proposal, said the changes would be “groundbreaking” for people with disabilities.

“It will stem the flow of young people into segregated employment by requiring that they be given experience in integrated settings,” the senator said.

When Harkin first proposed the plan last summer, some disability advocacy groups expressed concern that it offered little more than a checklist for vocational rehabilitation agencies to continue shuffling people to sheltered workshops. However, tweaks to the bill have largely eased those worries.

“We believe that the revised compromise language in section 511, while not perfect by any means, will help to reduce the number of youth with disabilities being tracked into subminimum wage employment,” said Christopher Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, which had initially opposed Harkin’s plan, but now supports it.

Danielsen called the current proposal an “important first step toward eliminating wage discrimination against people with disabilities.”

Now that a deal has been reached, the bill is expected to go before the Senate and House again to be voted on.

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