Careers for Special Adults

In the state of Minnesota (and maybe elsewhere) children with a cognitive impairment attend special education classes through high school. Once they have completed the 12th grade, they attend a “transition” program until they reach age twenty-one.

Transition programs include academic or functional skills instruction, vocational skill development that includes post-secondary opportunities through the career-technical programs, community-based learning, and training in personal responsibility and self-advocacy. The purpose of the transition program is to provide services for young adults as they progress from an educational setting toward living and working as independently as possible in the community.

Some students complete this level of education/training and are adequately prepared to enter society. They find a job, rent an apartment, and proceed with what we would consider a “normal life”. Other students complete the program but due to their individual disability, are unable to achieve this level of independence.

Our daughter Melissa graduated high school in 2007 and entered the school district’s transition program. There she was provided with additional education in “life skills” and was introduced to the work force through several part-time assisted work programs. When she reached age 21, her transition training ended and as her legal guardians, my wife and I had a decision to make.

Did she have the ability to pursue a “normal” life? Could she be safe in the community? Could she function in a work environment alongside those without impairment? Our decision was that she could not. That decision meant that she would continue to require support services as an adult—but what type of service should that be?

Our goal was to encourage her to continue to learn additional life skills. We also wanted her to have the personal satisfaction that comes from having a job. We also wanted her to embrace the rules and responsibilities associated with employment. As we began our search, we found our options limited.

One option was to enroll her in a “Supported Work Program” where she would receive help in obtaining a job (typically part-time) and would receive some level of on-the-job assistance from a job “coach”. Choosing this option would place her in a more traditional employment position where she would be forced to deal with the challenges of work and life in general.

The other choice was to enroll her in what is commonly known as a “Sheltered Workshop”. This option was more institutional, providing continuing education as well as work experience through the workshop’s in-house programs. When the “client” has the ability, these workshops encourage them toward a longer-term goal of obtaining supported employment and independent or semi-independent living (e.g. group home). When the client lacks the ability to achieve this independence, they remain in the workshop environment where they continue to work on their life skills. Given the unique nature of an individual’s cognitive disability, some may never achieve independence.

Shelter Workshops provide basic needs for the handicapped individual (commonly called a “client”) and the community including:

“Pay Check” allows the handicapped to perform a service for society by earning a portion of their livelihood.

“Responsibility” gives them the responsibility of coming to work and doing a job.

“Asset to Business” performs a service to competitive industry in jobs that are often labor intensive.

“Socialization” working side by side with their buddies.

In addition it’s probably the greatest Respite Program ever designed for parents and guardians, because they have the peace of mind that their son or daughter is safe, secure and a productive member of society while at the workshop.

A sheltered workshop operates much like any other light assembly or service shop, except that the employees are adults whose physical or mental disabilities currently prevent them from competing for regular employment. Employees are paid on a piece-rate basis according to their ability to produce, compared with non-disabled workers who would be paid the prevailing wage for the job. Although most workshop employees earn less than the minimum wage, the workshop provides them a place to perform meaningful work and lead productive lives.

To operate effectively and compete with ordinary businesses, sheltered workshops need additional supervisors to provide additional attention and support for workers with disabilities. State funds help offset these costs in an amount equal to $13 per six-hour day worked by each employee with a disability.

Sheltered workshops also arrange for transportation. Here in Minnesota, they retain the services of special transport firms which are equipped with wheelchair lifts and caring drivers/attendants who help them on/off the bus.

These workshops perform a variety of services for other businesses on a contractual basis. Examples of jobs performed in sheltered workshops are: sorting; collating; labeling; salvage; inspection; folding; mailing; sewing; subassembly; heat sealing; arbor press work; hand packaging; shrink, film, and blister packaging; electrical subassemblies; metal punch press operations; painting; manufacture of pallets, fishing lures, wooden craft items, etc. Workshop customers include nationally known companies as well as local companies.

After much consideration and visits to a variety of available programs, we chose a supported workshop for Melissa. Our decision was based on the fact that she has always done well in an “institutional” environment that offers a daily routine. She knows exactly what she will be doing each hour of the workday, which is something important to her. We chose the provider who offered the most comprehensive in-house employment and continuing education options to ensure that she remained challenged. And we considered her long-term personal relationships, which are very important to her. Many of her good friends from school and Special Olympics attend this workshop.

Melissa has been at this workshop for seven months and is doing great. She is excited to go to work each day. She has a lot of old friends and some new ones which we believe important for her social development. And she earns about $200 – $300 per month, which ensures that she will continue to qualify for her supplemental social security income.

I know that she is gaining an appreciation for her personal contributions. Each day she comes home and “reports” her personal productivity on the line that day. It makes me very proud to hear how well she is doing there.

We meet regularly with her counselor to identify new work opportunities that might help her become more independent and move toward a supported work structure. Until that day comes, we are satisfied to know that she is happy and making her personal contribution to society on their work-floor.


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