Schools must not exclude SWDs from workplace training

Schools must not exclude SWDs from workplace training

(District of Columbia) Throughout the U.S. schools are failing to prepare students with disabilities to enter the workforce after high school, often by funneling them into work readiness programs that emphasize manual labor or menial tasks, research shows.

According to a policy brief released last month by the Institute for Educational Leadership, districts continue to place SWDs in segregated adult sheltered workshops without first introducing them to competitive integrated employment opportunities despite requirements under federal law that public entities administer services, programs and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of individuals with disabilities.

“Across the board, we need to modernize our educational and workforce policies and practices,” Johan Uvin, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership, said in a statement. “We need to build strong community supports and services to eradicate these serious inequities that keep people with disabilities from achieving their dreams of competitive employment and full community integration.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires services, programs and activities administered by public entities be done so in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified people with disabilities–the law defines “most integrated setting” as one that “enables individuals with disabilities to interact with nondisabled persons to the fullest extent possible.”

In 1999, the United States Supreme Court held in Olmstead v. L.C. that Title II of the ADA prohibits the unjustified segregation of people with disabilities in instances when community-based services are appropriate; when the people in need of supports do not oppose community-based services; and where they can be reasonably accommodated.

Researchers at the institute noted that the U.S. Department of Justice has clarified that the ADA and Olmstead apply to youth transition services in recent years, meaning schools and education agencies that unnecessarily segregate students with disabilities in their pre-vocational transition programs may be liable under the ADA for discrimination.

Still, authors of the whitepaper found programs that train students with disabilities in tasks similar to those performed in sheltered workshops where they only interact with other people with disabilities and paid staff, and often earn subminimum wages.

While their peers are participating in paid work experiences, internships and mentorship programs in the community with real-world employers, many transition-age students with intellectual, developmental or significant disabilities may be trained perform routine tasks during the school day in classrooms, on school campuses or in adult sheltered workshops, researchers found. Such tasks, including sorting, shredding, folding, recycling, serving food, cleaning, maintaining flower beds, doing laundry, and handling trash typically do not correspond to learning a marketable skill, authors said.

Additionally, employment-related transition plans for students with disabilities in pre-vocational training programs are often not individualized, researchers said, nor do they include supports that reasonably accommodate SWDs.

Recent federal court rulings have found state and local education agencies liable for the failure to integrate students with disabilities into appropriate workplace training programs.

In United States v. Rhode Island and the City of Providence (2013), for instance, the Department of Justice found that Rhode Island and the Providence Public School District violated Title II of the ADA and Olmstead when 85 students with intellectual and developmental disabilities were placed at serious risk of entering adult sheltered workshops.

As part of the school’s transition program, SWDs participated in an in-school sheltered workshop where there were trained to perform sheltered workshop tasks, and the work that they performed was similar to the work performed by a nearby adult sheltered workshop. Many of the program’s students were later referred to that same workshop program in what the court found to be a direct pipeline to segregation. Few, if any, opportunities were provided to these students to participate in competitive integrated employment prior to graduation.

The following year, in 2014, the DOJ found hundreds of students with disabilities in Rhode Island had been placed at serious risk of unnecessary segregation in sheltered workshops and day programs. Specifically, among youth with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities who transitioned out of Rhode Island secondary schools between 2010 and 2012, the federal probe found that only about 5 percent transitioned into jobs in integrated settings, even though many of these students were able to work in integrated employment and were not opposed to doing so.

In Lane v. Brown/ United States v. Oregon (2015), the DOJ found that Oregon had done much the same thing and failed to establish the presence and availability of caseworkers, vocational rehabilitation counselors, and other supports in the state’s secondary school system necessary to assist SWDs in preparing for and transitioning to integrated employment.

Authors of the report said it is important that state and local education agencies understand the changing legal landscape pertaining to transition services for students with disabilities.

“Students must be provided with the individualized transition services and supports they need in order to experience work in competitive integrated employment prior to exiting school,” researchers wrote.

They recommend that districts:

  • Provide SWDs information about the benefits of working in competitive integrated employment;
  • Provide vocational and situational assessments, career development planning, and discovery in integrated employment settings;
  • Arrange peer-to-peer mentoring; facilitating visits; providing opportunities for work-based learning experiences in integrated job settings; and
  • Provide benefits counseling and planning to explain the impact of competitive work on an individual’s public benefits.

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