U.S. intervention halts menial labor for disabled in Rhode Island

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 13, 2013 5:50 PM
U.S. intervention halts menial labor for disabled in Rhode Island

By Stephanie Simon

BOSTON (Reuters) - Disabled students and adults in Providence, Rhode Island, will no longer be sent to isolated workshops to sort jewelry, package medical supplies and perform other odd jobs for little or no pay under a settlement reached Thursday between the state, the city and the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Justice had accused the state and city of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to integrate students and adults with disabilities into mainstream society.

Instead, about 90 disabled adults who sought support services through the state were sent to the state-licensed Training Thru Placement program, which assigned them to menial labor in an isolated office at wages that averaged $1.57 an hour, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Rhode Island.

Students with disabilities were frequently pulled out of classes to labor in a similar "sheltered workshop" located at a vocational high school. They performed jobs such as wrapping TV remote controls in plastic for wages that ranged from nothing to $2 an hour, according to the federal complaint. As their high school years drew to a close, they were often sent to Training Thru Placement for full-time employment, again at minimal pay, federal officials said.

Susan Lusi, superintendent of the Providence public schools, called the treatment of disabled students "a disturbing case of oversight and system failures on multiple levels." She said she shut the workshop down and removed its longtime administrator as soon as she learned about the circumstances in the sheltered workshop.

"It is our duty to provide every student with the greatest level of skill, knowledge and opportunity possible," Lusi said in a statement. "The operation of the sheltered workshop has failed a great number of students in that regard."

In bringing a legal case against the city and state, the Department of Justice noted that some people assigned to the workshop had asked repeatedly over years to be integrated into the community. They wanted "real jobs," volunteer opportunities, and a chance to interact with non-disabled individuals, federal officials said - yet both the state and city failed to respond to those requests.

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"The type of segregation and exploitation we found ... is all too common when states allow low expectations to shape their disability programs," Eve Hill, an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, said in a statement.

The settlement requires the state and the city to provide disabled high school students with "robust career development and transition planning" and to help adults find jobs with competitive wages in the community.

Even before the settlement, the state had begun to phase out segregated workshops and activities for disabled individuals, in favor of "fully integrated community activities with a focus on full employment," said Craig Stenning, director of the state health department, which oversees services for people with developmental disabilities.

(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Scott Malone and Kenneth Barry)