In Rhode Island, a workshop full of teens was segregated from workers without disabilities, forced to spend hours bagging, labeling, and assembling jewelry for private businesses as part of their school day. Often, students worked for no pay, and the few who were paid made wages between 50 cents and $2 per hour. When the companies had important production deadlines, school came second and full days were spent doing the work. The poor wages and working conditions, lack of interaction with people without disabilities, and minimal opportunities for growth were just part of a normal school day for about 200 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities at Harold A. Birch Vocational school before it was charged with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by the Department of Justice.
After an investigation into the workshop at Birch, a settlement was reached that requires the city of Providence and State of Rhode Island to to end violations of rights and segregation of disabled students in vocational programs that “robbed [them] of years of productivity, learning and contributing to their communities” according to a Justice Department official. As a result of the determination, the workshop has been shut down and the principal has been removed for lack of oversight. In resolution of the ADA violations, stricter regulations will be put in place to ensure that students at Birch are provided with necessary services and adequately trained for future employment in placements integrated in community settings.
Additionally, the Justice Department found that Providence had failed at providing students opportunities for quality employment upon graduation, instead serving as a direct pipeline to a similarly delinquent program.
The practice of sending Birch graduates to Training Thru Placement’s (TTP) program, which was similarly maintained and featured lack of privacy or interaction with staff without disabilities, extremely low wages (some as low as 14 cents per hour), and fixed routines, has also been shut down. Authorization for TTP to pay disabled workers below minimum wage has officially been revoked in light of the willful violations of federal labor laws, falsification of records, and a gross failure to determine appropriate wages. TTP has been ordered to pay employees back wages at minimum wage, or $7.25 per hour, for the time that they worked there.
Broader, statewide changes to be made include a mandate that no new individuals will be placed in segregated workshops and that all existing ‘training programs’ will be eliminated. However, Rhode Island is not the only state being targeted for violations of the ADA. The Department of Justice has been investigating other municipalities that are guilty of exploiting wage requirements and not providing adequate employment conditions for individuals with disabilities. In May, a ruling was passed in Texas that required a meat processing company to pay 32 disabled workers $240 million for ADA violations that included over 40 years of mental and physical abuse and neglect.
In a progressive move, the Rhode Island agreement is the first of its kind because it attempts to make corrections at a deeper level, aiming to alter the perception that disabled individuals are not able to work effectively as part of the greater community. The terms of agreement directly “establish and implement a policy that includes the presumption that all individuals covered by this Interim Agreement are capable of working in integrated employment settings” and mandate the availability of services such as translation and training to overcome communication issues.
This settlement is just the tip of the iceberg in achieving full equality for disabled individuals, but it is an important step.
About the author
Emily Homrock is a staff writer for Majux, a digital marketing agency that specializes in law firm SEO and website design for firms of all sizes and types.