Making Government Work

The Most Vulnerable Citizens in Rhode Island Finally Have Some Good News

April 15, 2014
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The Most Vulnerable Citizens in Rhode Island Finally Have Some Good News
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
A court judgment rewards them with regular employment and minimum wage earnings.

For years Rhode Island residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities spent their time in “sheltered workshops,” where they were supposed to perform menial tasks like unwrapping bars of soap or putting caps on bottles of lotion. They only made about $2.21 an hour, the AP reports.

Fortunately, the Justice Department and the state of Rhode Island put an end to that last Tuesday.

The two parties agreed to a settlement that requires Rhode Island to give disabled citizens a chance at regular employment that pays at least the minimum wage. The agreement will affect about 3,250 people statewide.

If you’re surprised that disabled residents were spending time in sheltered workshops in the first place, perhaps you shouldn’t be. About 450,000 people with disabilities nationwide work in segregated centers, where they have little contact with the outside world, according to the AP.

“It’s a serious problem across the country, and Rhode Island is hardly unique,” Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels said at a press conference.

Segregated workshops like the ones in Rhode Island used to be viewed as the model for people with mental or developmental disabilities. But in the 1990s, the Supreme Court ruled that people with disabilities should be served in the most integrated settings possible. Rhode Island was accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act for years.

Now that the settlement has been reached, Rhode Island will provide minimum-wage job opportunities to about 2,000 people over the next 10 years. The state also agreed to provide transitional services, like trial work experience and job site visits, for disabled residents who are ages 14-21.

Some of the money that will fund the new program will come from the money already being spent on sheltered workshops.

This is a hopeful sign that disabled citizens in Rhode Island (and around the country) will finally have a shot at fair and meaningful employment.

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