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Debate over the Fate of Sheltered Workshops

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By Jason Weinstein.
The clock is ticking on employment centers for the developmentally disabled - sometimes called sheltered workshops.

"The state would like us to phase out the sheltered workshops and they would basically go away in five years," said Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (D-123rd District).

The state is pushing for these workers to be integrated into jobs in the community, in compliance with the Olmstead decision, which requires people with intellectual and developmental disabilities be served in the most integrated setting appropriate.

"They're being segregated all together in one space, all people with developmental disabilities or all people with disabilities in general. They are people who could be easily integrated into the regular workforce," said Maria Dibble, Executive Director of the Southern Tier Independence Center.

"If you look at (Olmstead) very closely it talks about choice, choice being an individual's right to choose where they would like to be as long as it's considered the least restrictive and the most independent. For many of the individuals we serve in our employment centers that is exactly the situation," said Mary Jo Thorn, CEO of ACHIEVE.

Dibble argues many workers in these employment centers can earn below minimum wage for years and miss out on the benefit of a desegregated environment.

Thorn, whose agency ACHIEVE oversees both supported employment in the community and employment centers, says workers can either earn below minimum wage if they have low levels of productivity, minimum wage, or above.

She says of the 350 people working in ACHIEVE employment centers at most 60 might be able to transition to jobs in the community, with the rest unable.

"I've already heard from parents who are deeply worried about their children. They may have to leave their own jobs in order to take care of their children who have been doing quite well in a sheltered workshop setting," said Lupardo.

Lupardo points to deals reached in other states. Massachusetts is calling for the funding of workshops serving persons with disabilities who voluntarily wish to stay there. New Jersey lawmakers also struck a deal to keep it's workshops open.

Meanwhile the U.S. Justice Department reached an agreement last April with Rhode Island where 1,250 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities will receive services to help transition into the workforce over the next ten years.

Lupardo says she will look to strike a deal during this year's budget negotiations.

****In Broome County, Jason Weinstein, FOX 40 HD News****