Picture of Dr. Jacobus tenBroek

The Character And Function Of Sheltered Workshops

by Jacobus tenBroek

Copyright © 1995
National Federation of the Blind

          The institution of the sheltered workshop, for over a century an inconspicuous feature of the American welfare scene, has recently emerged from its obscurity to become the storm center of one of the liveliest controversies in the entire field of social work and public welfare. At the heart of the controversy is a fundamental disagreement over the proper function and future role of the sheltered shop. One viewpoint holds that a proper role of the shops is that of providing work evaluation, determination of abilities, and the development of work tolerance on the part of disabled persons along with vocational training itself as part of the process of vocational rehabilitation. More recently, doctors and health officials have begun to campaign for the use of the workshop as a medical facility for restorative, adjustive, and prevocational services, centering around the principle of work therapy. Finally, the oldest and perhaps still the most widely held viewpoint is that which regards the workshop as a place of remunerative employment for disabled individuals.

          Two of these approaches to the sheltered workshop find support for their arguments in federal law and administrative rulings. The proponents of the vocational adjustment and training function point out that, since the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act in 1954, sheltered workshops have been recognized as a legitimate training adjunct of the federal-state vocational rehabilitation program; and in addition they may now cite the majority ruling of the National Labor Relations Board, handed down in March of this year (1960), that rehabilitation is the essential function of the workshop.

          The defenders of the employment status of the workshop may demonstrate that, even with the Vocational Rehabilitation Act, sheltered workshop is defined as primarily a place which provides remunerative employment, and that in fact rehabilitation administrators frequently regard the placement of their clients in such shops as sufficient to meet the remunerative placement requirements which are the ultimate objective of vocational rehabilitation programs. Moreover, the employment argument finds further support in the fact that the very exemption of sheltered workshops from the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act was granted on the premise that they are places of employment.

          To some extent the issues raised by these differences of viewpoint are theoretical in nature, involving such questions as: What are the proper goals of workshops? What is their greatest usefulness as instruments of welfare?

          To a larger extent, perhaps, the issues are practical. What in actual fact are the functions of such shops? What are the prevailing conditions of training, work, and release?

          On both the theoretical and practical levels, disagreement is widespread and often acrimonious. Insofar as they are theoretical, the questions raised by the workshop can only be settled by reference to policies and goals. Insofar as they are practical, such questions can only be answered by reference to fact.

          Unfortunately, some of those who are in a position to assemble and disseminate the facts have not done so. For example, the Sheltered Workshop Committee within the Department of Labor has not chosen to fulfill its duties in these areas.

          One important source of information concerning sheltered work- shops, however, is available to all. It consists of the statutes of the various states governing their publicly operated sheltered shops. Anyone with access to a law library can look at these statutes. No doubt they yield their information by means of complicated sentences and technical language, but they do yield it. That information is, in large measure, the content of the pages to follow.

          In particular, we shall seek to identify the salient characteristics and purposes of the workshops as specified in these laws with reference to the objectives they purport to serve, the nature of their opportunities and undertakings, the attitudes they reflect toward those who participate in them, and their working conditions and social atmosphere.

          The principal question to keep in mind through these pages is: What light do they shed upon the basic issue of the proper role and function of sheltered workshops within a system of welfare? Do they distinguish among or do they merely confuse and commingle the separate functions of (1) a vocational evaluation, adjustment, and training center; (2) a therapeutic facility; and (3) a place of remunerative employment?

          General Background

          Sheltered workshops, as such, first arose in America over a century ago as an outgrowth of the special schools for the blind whose curricula concentrated upon the provision of simple forms of vocational training in such limited and manual skills as weaving, knitting, and chair caning, as well as in music and similar arts. At first it was the hope of the educators that the blind, with proper instruction, will be able to maintain themselves free of charge from their friends or the state. Unfortunately, however, nothing had been done to persuade society of the capacities of these blind trainees; and before long, as one report put it, Our graduates began to return to us, representing the embarrassment of their condition abroad, and soliciting employment at our hands. Thus were born the sheltered workshops as segregated places of permanent employment for those regarded by society (if not by themselves and their protectors) as unemployable.

          Although sheltered workshops emerged in their modern form a century ago, their ancestry may be traced at least to the Middle Ages. It is possible to distinguish four separate historical associations from which the contemporary workshops derive: namely, those of the workhouse, the church, the hospital, and the school. Since the traces of this long and complicated heritage are still to be seen in many sheltered workshops of today, it is instructive to glance briefly at the sources and character of these various influences.

          The oldest influence of all is that which had its origin in religious protection of the disabled. Since the Church was the first charitable organization, a federal official has written, inevitably some lines of the workshop movement have strong religious ties. When the indigent, the physically disabled, and the mentally different were herded into the asylums of the 1700s, they were being brought together not to ameliorate their condition but simply to get them off the street. A primary concern of the church for its disabled and indigent wards was with their souls as well as with their bodies with spiritual redemption and moral uplift perhaps more than with vocational rehabilitation and physical restoration as understood today. Among many privately operated workshops today, such as those of the Salvation Army and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, these are still the principal goals of workshop activity. The Volunteers of America (an offshoot of the Salvation Army) currently sponsors at least 70 such workshops; while perhaps the most successful of all the mission or church-sponsored workshop chains is that of the Goodwill Industries, founded by a Methodist minister in 1905, which by 1957 controlled 120 shops throughout the country.

          A corollary line of development from which the contemporary workshop has emerged is that of the medieval and early modern hospital which, like the asylum, was generally under church auspices, but may be distinguished in terms of its specific function. European hospitals of the early sixteenth century were described by one observer as those places where the sick are fed and cared for, where a certain number of paupers are supported, where boys and girls are reared, where abandoned infants are nourished, where the insane are confined, and where the blind dwell. The purpose of the hospital was primarily to care for the sick and totally disabled, but in the bedlam created by its motley population there were also the rudiments of school, nursery, almshouse, and insane asylum. Those present-day workshops which incorporate the provision of medical and therapeutic services therefore may be seen as the outcome of a line of development reaching back to the medieval hospital and extending through the American county hospitals of more recent times institutions which also sought to fulfill the double function of healing the sick and employing the handicapped.

          Another significant precursor of the sheltered workshop was the workhouse, or almshouse, which evolved as an institution of work relief accompanying the Poor Laws of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. For present purposes the chief importance of the workhouse was that it was designed, not primarily for the ill or handicapped, but for the able-bodied poor. The workhouse provided an institutionalized form of poor-relief; and in keeping with Elizabethan assumptions of the characterological causes of poverty, it was made as disagreeable as possible and its wages held to a bare minimum above starvation so that not many would willingly seek admission or contentedly remain. The gospel of work as the means of salvation (and, conversely, of idleness as the route to damnation) virtually converted the almshouse into a forced-labor camp; indeed, the distinction between workhouse and jailhouse was often difficult to discern.

          Finally, as indicated above, the sheltered workshops grew up as adjuncts of the special schools for the blind established in the nineteenth century. However, it is significant that these schools soon deliberately severed their connection with the shops they had themselves created, as it became apparent that the functions of education and employment could not feasibly be mixed within the same program. Thereafter, the workshops came to be operated independently of educational and custodial institutions.

          The historical development of modern welfare philosophy has been one of increasing recognition of the necessary distinctions and incompatibilities among these several emphases and approaches to the problem of disability. Some among them notably that of the workhouse and almshouse, and possibly also to some extent that of the religious mission have come to be recognized as anachronisms. Others, such as the vocational training emphasis of the early schools and the sheltered employment conception which succeeded it, still retain some support in welfare theory and policy. But it is clear that the direction of progress has been completely away from the primitive notion of an encompassing bedlam in which all the sick and disabled, rejected and despised members of society would be thrown together and in which the various and dissimilar functions of the church, the school, the factory, the hospital, and the prison would be simultaneously carried on.

          It remains to be seen whether the statutes of the states governing their publicly operated sheltered workshops have kept pace with this clear direction of progress.

          Conditions of Labor

          State employees generally are excluded from compulsory cover- age of unemployment compensation under the Internal Revenue Code of 1954. The Code also exempts charitable organizations, including privately operated workshops, from compulsory coverage. Such states as Oregon, California, Washington, and Wisconsin have taken legislative and administrative steps to extend the coverage of unemployment compensation to some or all of the workers in their state-operated sheltered workshops. With respect to privately operated workshops, Hawaii is the only one of thirty- two states having such shops to take legislative action changing their status. It did so by dropping the exemptions of charitable organizations from unemployment compensation coverage. In short, the vast majority of employees of sheltered workshops (both public and private) throughout the country are without the protection of unemployment compensation laws.

          The workers in sheltered shops face an additional deprivation. The Labor Management Relations Act excludes the states and their political subdivisions from the definition of employer for purposes of collective bargaining. A recent ruling of the National Labor Relations Board withheld the collective bargaining provisions of the Act from privately operated sheltered shops. This ruling was handed down in the case of Sheltered Workshops of San Diego, Inc. vs. United Association of Handicapped. By a majority decision of three to two, the National Labor Relations Board refused to assert jurisdiction. The ground taken was that the Workshop's purposes are directed entirely toward rehabilitation of unemployable persons and that its commercial activities should be viewed only as a means to that end. The chief arguments against this ruling were forcefully stated by the dissenting opinion of the two minority members of the National Labor Relations Board: Why then does the majority find that it would not effectuate the purposes of the Act to assert jurisdiction here? It does so because the Workshop's rehabilitation work benefits the entire community. We do not, of course, deny that this is so, but we reject the implicit corollary that a non-profit organization engaging in socially beneficial activities therefore owes its employees less than other employers do. The right of employees to select a representative and to bargain with their employer concerning their grievances and work conditions should not be so lightly disregarded. The majority has balanced the Workshop's commercial activities against its rehabilitation program and has decided that the latter outweighs the former. We would balance the Workshop's total program, commercial and rehabilitative, against the rights of these unfortunate and disabled employees, and would find that the latter is equally important.

          The greatest deprivation to workers in sheltered workshops is the exemption of these shops from the minimum wage provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. With reference to the blind alone, at least 85 of the more than 100 sheltered shops primarily employing sightless workers hold certificates of exemption issued by the Department of Labor under Section 214 of the Act. The average minimum of such exemptions (1960) is 53 cents per hour as opposed to the national minimum wage of $1.00 per hour for industrial labor. About 100 blind workers in sheltered shops receive a minimum wage below 40 cents per hour. Given the generally acknowledged fact that blind persons have special additional expenses incident to their blindness, exemption from minimum wage guarantees is thus a fact of vital significance to workers in sheltered shops.

          It is such considerations as these which have led a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Ways and Means reporting in March of this year (1960) on the Social Security Program of Disability Insurance to question whether employment in sheltered workshops should properly be regarded as substantial gainful activity. The subcommittee concluded that wage conditions in the shops were generally so deplorable that it should be a rare case in which an employee of a sheltered workshop may be considered to be engaged in substantial gainful activity and thus held ineligible for disability insurance payments. (Administration of Social Security Disability Program, Preliminary Report to the Committee on Ways and Means, submitted by the Subcommittee on the Administration of the Social Security Laws, March 11, 1960, page 22.)

          With but few exceptions, it may be said in summary, the employees of sheltered workshops, both publicly and privately operated, (1) do not possess the benefits of unemployment compensation; (2) do not possess the benefits of workmen's compensation; (3) do not possess the benefits of Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance under the Social Security Program; (4) the privileges of collective bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act are withheld from them; and (5) they are exempted from the minimum wage guarantees of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In such circumstances of enforced poverty, insecurity, and discriminatory withholding of privileges and denial of rights, can it be contended that the sheltered shops rehabilitate or supply remunerative employment for their disabled workers?<193>

          Of the total of 389 workshops holding certificates of exemption from minimum wage laws, 85 primarily serve blind persons. According to the Department of Labor, there were in 1958, 4,700 blind persons employed in these shops (in 1960 the Labor Department statement is less than 5,000) who were subject to certificates of exemption; there were others who did earn the statutory minimum wage, but statistics relating to them are unavailable. Fifty-seven of these shops presently belong to the National Industries for the Blind, which employed 3,712 blind persons in 1956. The lowest minimum wage approved for these workers in 1958 was 10 cents an hour, the highest minimum wage was 80 cents an hour, and the average minimum wage 53 cents an hour. These figures represent the lowest wage permitted in such shops. In construing the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Department of Labor requires that every worker on piece rates be paid the same wage paid to workers in adjacent private industry for the same work. This is not a very valuable standard, since much of the work done in these shops is not carried on by any appreciable segment of private industry; and in any event this standard is not enforced by the Labor Department.


          From this survey of the statutory provisions of the states governing their sheltered workshops, several conclusions clearly emerge. The three distinctive functions of sheltered shops vocational rehabilitation, medical therapy, and remunerative employment are rarely distinguished in the statutes. Instead the workshop is commonly conceived as a combination of two, or even all three, of these functions in effect, as an all-purpose solution to the numerous and varied problems confronted by the blind. In what is perhaps their most characteristic form these statutes simply perpetuate a relic of the past: a vague combination of the workhouse, the almshouse, the factory, and the asylum, carefully segregated from normal competitive society and administered by a custodial staff armed with sweeping discretionary authority. In many cases their responsibility for the client of their services is so broad as to appear to embrace the function of nearly all other community agencies and groups. In the administration of moral uplift and regeneration they assume in effect the role of the church; in the provision of intellectual instruction they exercise the function of the schools; in the enforcement of discipline and the power of punishment they resemble a penal institution; and in their emphasis upon group activities of a social, recreational, and cultural nature they take on the characteristics of a service club or voluntary association. Over and above these disparate if not conflicting responsibilities, the assumption of which is surely of doubtful propriety, the sheltered workshop typically furnishes some form of work experience to its participants, generally for wages and often directed toward the objective of self-support. But few state laws differentiate adequately or clearly among the purposes which these activities may be supposed to serve.

          On the basis of our study it is not excessive to conclude that the sheltered workshop as it exists within the states today is a welfare catch-all which means all things to all men, and therefore possesses no distinctive and specific characteristic upon which all may agree. Indeed, by their failure to distinguish among the three separate functions available to them, the workshops of the states must be adjudged to be failures in all three. The nature and extent of their failure with respect to each of these functions may be briefly stated.

  1. Vocational Rehabilitation. There are dangers and difficulties involved in the use of sheltered workshops in any program of rehabilitation. Most serious of all are those attending the support of workshops within the public program of vocational rehabilitation (Public Law 565). In their traditional, and still perhaps their most characteristic, role as permanent employment outlets for the disabled, the sheltered shops are incompatible with the purposes and goals of modern vocational rehabilitation. Under no circumstances should they be utilized as dumping grounds for clients of vocational rehabilitation, such as the blind, for whom normal job placement is a difficult but essential prerequisite to proper rehabilitation. Vocational rehabilitation agencies should be discouraged from regarding the option of sheltered employment as a closure for their clients, however convenient such a solution may be in terms of economy and rapid turnover of the caseload.

          Because of their customary role as sheltered (i.e., segregated, covered, and noncompetitive) employment retreats, the social and psychological environment of the workshops is often not conducive to the paramount objective of vocational rehabilitation: that of restoring the disabled person to a vocational status of normality and equality. Where feasible rehabilitants are thrown together with the non-feasible, where working facilities and methods are geared to outmoded and unproductive handicrafts such as broom making and chair caning, and where the working atmosphere is commonly one of defeatism if not of despair, the overriding purposes of modern vocational rehabilitation cannot be served but only undermined.

          Apart from psychological and social factors, the economics of sheltered workshops equally tend to militate against their successful adaptation, as presently constituted, to vocational rehabilitation goals. First, they are in most cases at least partially subsidized and so removed from the normal incentives and competition of ordinary industry. Second, insofar as economic considerations enter, workshop managers are tempted to retain their ablest and most productive workers permanently rather than risk a financial loss by graduating them into normal employment. Finally, the economic and working conditions within sheltered shops are commonly far below those in normal industry. The existence of such conditions strongly argues against the public support of sheltered workshops, under any circumstances, as training centers for vocational rehabilitation clients.

          Finally, the historic associations of sheltered workshops with the workhouse, almshouse, asylum, and church of the Middle Ages have left conspicuous traces upon the majority of present-day shops, giving them often the character of agencies for moral redemption rather than that of means to the restoration of productive capacities. Institutions thus motivated are unlikely to be equally qualified or equipped in the mundane areas of vocational guidance, training, and selective placement.

  1. Terminal Employment. With respect to the function of providing permanent (or terminal) remunerative employment for the blind and severely disabled, sheltered workshops have failed to fulfill their responsibility to their employees. Indeed, they have for the most part sought to avoid the normal obligations of employers through exemption from the laws fixing minimum standards of employment and working conditions. Workers in sheltered shops deserve and require the same protection of their rights as do the workers in other industries: specifically, with respect to wages, hours, vacations, sick leave, labor-management relations, and the like. However, blind workshop employees have never received, and do not now receive, such protection. Not only do wages fail to meet the cost of living; they fail to meet the minimum requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act, from which sheltered shops have in fact been explicitly exempted. Nor can blind workshop employees hope to improve conditions by their own efforts; for one thing, they are not organized into unions, and for another thing (as noted earlier) they have been denied the collective bargaining protection of the National Labor Relations Act. Finally, many of these employees do not have entitlement to workmen's compensation or Social Security privileges, and most are denied the benefits of unemployment compensation. In short, blind workers in sheltered employment are virtually in the position of wards, without legal rights or recourse, and reduced to an abject dependency upon the good will and discretion of their employers. In such circumstances, it is conservative understatement to say that sheltered workshops have failed to meet the conditions of employment to which American workers are entitled and accustomed.

  2. Medical Therapy. On the basis of our survey of statutory provisions, the least plausible of all claims for sheltered workshops is that they have provided or can provide adequate facilities for medical and therapeutic assistance. For such facilities to be efficient, they should be completely divorced from considerations of remunerative employment on the one hand and of vocational training on the other. The purposes of therapy are, of course, not economic but medical and psychological in character. The very cases for whom such assistance is the primary need i.e., the multiply and totally disabled are those incapable of self-sufficient employment, let alone of vocational preparation for return to normal occupations. The statutes which we have examined plainly display the tendency of sheltered shops to become terminal places of employment in which so-called unemployable may find a drudge's niche at the workbench. It goes without saying that something more than the stereotyped blind trades of weaving and chair caning is required to serve a genuine therapeutic purpose and furnish healthy incentives to personal adjustment. The clinging heritage of the almshouse and asylum, into which the supposed derelicts of society were dumped and forgotten, remains sufficiently in evidence in present-day workshops to vitiate the prospect of their constructive uses for medical and therapeutic purposes. What the severely disabled clients of such services most clearly and urgently need is a form of productive endeavor carefully adjusted to their unique individual circumstances and individually designed to make constructive use of their enforced leisure. Such a therapeutic enterprise must be in the fullest sense client-centered rather than geared to industrial markets, economic consideration, or the convenience of traditional trades and handicrafts.

          This is not to say, of course, that the three separate functions which sheltered workshops have purported to serve those of vocational rehabilitation, of employment, and of therapy have no place in modern programs of health and welfare. For the blind and other disabled persons in the productive years of life, vocational rehabilitation is the essential and overriding need; but its purposes of occupational guidance, training, and competitive job placement cannot be met by the sheltered workshop. If, either within or outside the vocational rehabilitation process, there is need for vocational adjustment or therapeutic centers, that need should be met not by the sheltered shop but by special rehabilitation facilities such as those authorized by Public Law 565 (where they are carefully distinguished from workshops). Rehabilitation facility, the law states, means a facility operated for the primary purpose of assisting in the rehabilitation of disabled persons(1) which provides one or more of the following types of services: (A) testing, fitting, or training in the use of prosthetic devices; (B) prevocational or conditioning therapy; (C) physical or occupational therapy; (D) adjustment training; or (E) evaluation or control of special disabilities; or (2) through which is provided an integrated program of medical, psychological, social, and vocational evaluation and services under competent professional supervision.<193> Finally, there is no doubt that a genuine need exists for permanent noncompetitive employment of certain categories of the severely handicapped, but that need also (as we have seen above) is not met by sheltered workshops of the type described by the governing statutes of the states.

          In summary, the fundamental failure of sheltered workshops for the blind and disabled lies in their indiscriminate intermingling of functions and purposes which are demonstrably incompatible if not mutually exclusive. It is not too much to conclude, on the basis of the statutory evidence, that the sheltered workshop has become an anachronism which America, if it is to practice successfully the democratic welfare philosophy it professes, can ill afford to perpetuate.

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