[nfbmi-talk] a legacy of exploitation

Terry Eagle terrydeagle at yahoo.com
Mon Aug 6 18:56:44 UTC 2012

Hmmmmmmmm, is this a view or snapshot of we the blind?  It appears so with
regard to LARA, Mike Zimmer, and the governor, the way they treat the blind.

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Subject: [nfbmi-talk] a legacy of exploitation

A Legacy of Exploitation: Intellectual disability, unpaid labor, &
disability services

Jihan Abbas

New Politics, Summer 2012 Vol:XIV-1 Whole #: 53


While employment issues have always been an important aspect of disability
policy, a focus on paid and formal employment has meant that the experience
many working-age adults with intellectual disabilities has been overlooked.
Many erroneously believe the historic absence of persons with intellectual
disabilities in the workplace is evidence that persons with intellectual
disabilities cannot or do not work. The changing face of disability supports
at times reinforced this belief through the construction of segregated
spaces that house and/or occupy unemployed and working-aged persons with
disabilities. Yet a closer examination of disability services reveals a
legacy of invisible labor by persons with intellectual disabilities that
notions of idleness and questions the sometimes-exploitive nature of
disability services for persons with intellectual disabilities. Although not
classified as labor, contributions that take place within rehabilitation and
training programs offered through many disability service frameworks,
a capacity to work and contribute, as well as the necessity of this labor to
the administration of some disability supports and services. What I argue
here is that a brief look at the everyday experience of many within
rehabilitation and training programs, both inside and outside of the
walls, reveals the embedded nature of this labor as a central and necessary
function within the delivery of many services and supports for adults with
intellectual disabilities. This reality needs to be recognized and addressed
in order to achieve more equitable labor relations for persons with

Behind the Institution Walls

Although deinstitutionalization has largely shifted the delivery of many
disability services into the community, historically the institution served
an important site of unpaid labor for persons with intellectual
disabilities. Despite the reality that many of those incarcerated within
these sites were
believed to pose a threat because of their perceived idleness, evidence that
has emerged indicates a rhythm of institutional life in which unpaid labor
served an important function, both in terms of individual experience and the
ability of these institutions to function effectively and efficiently.

By the 1920s most institutions had begun "pre-vocational" and "vocational"
training for kindergarten aged inmates. [1] This training consisted of tools
children were encouraged to integrate into their play, and by six years of
age "young inmates were learning how to hammer a nail, punch holes in
or wash rags on a miniature washboard." [2] Work assignments were based
heavily on sex and ability [3] and work was a central aspect in
institutional learning
for persons with intellectual disabilities. However, this labor extended
beyond the learning environment as patient labor served an important
for the administrators of these sites. [4]

Thomas F. Allan's narrative, as illustrated throughout the book
Deinstitutionalization and People with Intellectual Disabilities [5]
illustrates the importance
of unpaid labor in terms of the everyday experiences of patients.
Institutionalized before the age of four, Thomas spent 45 years in Rome
State School
in New York. He would wake every morning at 5:30AM and would then wake the
"working boys." [6] The use of "working boys" and "working girls" was common
practice within the institution whereby higher functioning inmates would
provide unpaid care to inmates with higher needs. [7] In addition to serving
a cost saving measure, this practice enabled institutions to efficiently
deal with growing populations. [8] According to Thomas, inmates would assist
feeding other inmates, sometimes being responsible for making sure as many
as three to four inmates got enough to eat, and would also help with cleanup
after meals and other jobs including bathing inmates, laundry services,
cleaning duties, and supervising other inmates. [9] Historians have noted
in the Rome State School, chores like making the beds, mopping, and
providing attendant care to other inmates were referred to as "domestic
[10] In addition to these tasks, agriculture programs, where many inmates
labored, provided the produce that fed those within the institution. [11]

This unpaid labor by inmates meant that the line between paid and unpaid
work within the institution was often fuzzy as best, with inmates sometimes
the very same tasks as paid attendants. As James W. Trent's work
illustrates, one inmate within an Illinois asylum labored for eight years,
only to be
hired back as a paid attendant after he left the institution. [12] Another
inmate, who had been assigned to the laundry, in fact carried out tasks that
were indistinguishable from the non-disabled paid staff; while he lost his
arm in 1907 because of a workplace incident, nothing materialized from the
investigation, as lawmakers were aware that this kind of labor kept down
institutional costs. [13] As one historian has noted, patient labor had
impacts on the internal economy of the site as it reduced direct costs
associated with paid care and produced outputs needed to maintain daily
of the site. [14] There is also evidence to suggest "good working patients"
were transferred between various institutions as they were in fact viewed as
valuable resources for site administrators. [15]

Within the framework of this unpaid labor, it seems it was also common
practice for site administrators to categorize inmates by perceived ability
and IQ
and tailor work assignments. For example, at the Rome Asylum, there was even
a nursing program for "higher grades" that led to employment for graduates
in their own institution and other facilities. [16] More telling is that
when Martin Barr published Mental Defectives in 1904, he thanked three
for their aid in preparing the book; these "boys," it seems, had taken
pictures for the book, provided translation, and typed the entire
manuscript. [17]

The often-indistinguishable nature of inmate labor from the labor of paid
staff, coupled with the necessity of this labor for the effective and
functioning of the institution, speaks to the reality that these labor
contributions were seen as more than education and training, even to site
and sheds light on the exploitive nature of inmate labor embedded within
early forms of disability services.

Although there were shifts over time with respect to how inmate labor was
framed, it seems this labor remained a central function over the life course
the institution. In their brief analysis of the world of work within the
institution, Kelley Johnson and Rannveig Traustadottir note that while early
work was necessary and tied to the running of the institution (laundry
services, agriculture etc.), later shifts saw the role of work framed as a
activity to keep inmates occupied. [18] They note that in the final years of
institutionalization, [19] the emergence of "workshops," with some even
outside of the institution, became prevalent as there was the belief that
inmates needed to learn an occupation, and that work and home life should be
physically separated. [20] These shifts in work assignment and the reframing
of this labor speak to evolving policy discourses that sought to justify the
unpaid labor of persons with intellectual disabilities so as to present this
work as beneficial to the individual rather than a form of unpaid or

Sheltered Workshops: unpaid labor within the context of community

While there are important spaces within the community in which persons with
intellectual disabilities labor without pay, the sheltered workshop
an important site of this labor and speaks directly to a continuation,
within the context of community, of the kinds of exploitive labor that were
central to the functioning of the institution. Even under the guise of
inclusion and their physical location within a community setting, sheltered
continue to serve as an important reminder of the unpaid, and largely
unrecognized, contributions of persons with intellectual disabilities. This
also reminds us of the ways in which some disability services still rely on
the labor and marginal status of persons with intellectual disabilities in
order to function efficiently and effectively.

An apparent holdout from the "therapeutic" work activities that were once
based within the institution, sheltered workshops continue to ensure that
persons with intellectual disabilities labor within the "community" for
little to no pay. In these segregated and non-competitive work sites
earn significantly less than stipulated minimum wages; their pay is often
classified as a "gratuity"; and workers are likely to be classified as
trainees, or clients rather than employees. [21] Justified through arguments
around social integration, occupational integration, and rehabilitation,
these work sites exist to support and prepare individuals to enter or
re-enter the labor force. Sheltered workshops "service" individuals who have
deemed unemployable, [23] with persons with intellectual disabilities
remaining heavily represented in sheltered workshops and other segregated
programs. [24] Within these workshops there is a clear emphasis on tedious
and labor-intensive tasks that would be tied to low-wage and low-status
within the competitive labor process (i.e. collating material, sorting,
repetitive and monotonous tasks like stuffing envelopes etc.).

Despite the continued justifications for these sites by those agencies that
provide these kinds of "services," a recent report by the National
Rights Network (NDRN) [25] outlines the many ways these sites continue to
fail persons with intellectual disabilities. Included in their critique of
workshops are the following realities: this labor contradicts existing
disability policy, including protection under the Americans with
Disabilities Act
(ADA); these sites reinforce the segregation of persons with intellectual
disabilities in much the same way institutions once did; even while their
experience the benefits of this labor, participants receive below the
minimum wage, which reinforces poverty and excludes workers from the kinds
of benefits
and protections non-disabled workers receive; because sheltered workshops
reinforce skills that are not transferable, this "training" does not lead to
better or more equitable job opportunities for persons with intellectual
disabilities. [26] Furthermore, because of sub-standard wages, sizable
and their placement outside of the mainstream labor market, agencies that
operate sheltered workshops have not been forced to evolve, innovate, or
as other businesses have. [27] These realities have meant that rather than
help prepare persons with intellectual disabilities for greater and more
employment opportunities, many persons with intellectual disabilities
instead remain segregated within a framework of service delivery where their
is continually exploited.

Despite evidence that these sites are not in the best interest of persons
with intellectual disabilities, the value of these sites, as a part of the
business" is clear. The practice of sheltered workshops enables some of
these programs to operate both as a human service agency and as a business.
With respect to their business function, sheltered workshops generate their
revenue through sales and provide wages to their supervisory (and
staff. [29] Thus, the "business" side of sheltered workshops does at times
outweigh the employment interests of the clientele, and much in the same way
productive inmates were seen as valuable assets to the institution, managers
of sheltered workshops often retain workers who are productive rather than
helping to facilitate regular employment for these individuals. [30] Indeed,
according to Mark Hyde, managers of sheltered workshops are often "reluctant
to lose their 'best' workers." [31] This conflict appears since it is
integral to their survival that a sheltered workshop gains contracts and
raises capital.
[32] This reality creates a clear conflict between what is in the best
interest of persons with intellectual disabilities who receive disability
through these sites and what is necessary for the successful administration
of a site, which relies heavily on securing and successfully delivering
contracts to clients who operate within the competitive labor market.

While these contracts are often framed as a form of corporate goodwill (i.e.
private businesses providing meaningful tasks to persons with intellectual
disabilities through their "support" of programs for persons with
intellectual disabilities), these contractors take advantage of the cheap
labor pools
provided by sheltered workshops, and thus exploit the social and economic
vulnerability of those with intellectual disabilities. [33] In one
between sheltered work and open employment, the researchers noted that
workshops have evolved to "essentially [provide] a cheap and captive pool of
[labor] that enables other businesses to survive and even prosper at the
expense of employees with disabilities." [34] While individuals within
workshops may not themselves be counted as part of the competitive labor
process, their labor and the goods and services they produce do contribute
the mainstream labor process in very tangible ways. Contractors who use
these sites avoid having these tasks carried out in-house by employees who
receive the minimum wage and other related benefits of formal employment.
Therefore, sheltered workshops have created a kind of parallel and
labor process where workers with intellectual disabilities remain the only
party involved in the labor process not receiving tangible or equitable
from their labor. Disability agencies that operate sheltered workshops are
able to subsidize operating and staffing costs through contracts while at
same time promoting a "training" component for their "clients." Businesses
that outsource labor to sheltered workshops are able to use these sites to
into a cheap and captive labor pool that exists beyond labor laws, minimum
wage, benefits, or unions. At the same time, these businesses are able to
a positive public perception by maintaining that outsourcing labor to
sheltered workshops is evidence that they support employment initiatives for
with intellectual disabilities.

Towards Real Work and Real Opportunities for Persons with Intellectual

Deinstitutionalization and the move towards community inclusion have not led
to the inclusion of persons with intellectual disabilities in mainstream
opportunities. Scanning the history of disability services for persons with
intellectual disabilities illustrates that persons with intellectual
have historically made significant contributions through their labor, even
though this labor has remained largely invisible within the framework of
services. Yet, while these bodies may not be counted among the competitive
labor processes, it is clear that this labor has often been an integral part
of disability services.

Much of the research and advocacy that is critical of sheltered employment,
and other therapeutic and rehabilitative programs that deny workers with
disabilities from receiving at least the minimum wage, does provide
alternatives to these kinds of exploitive arrangements. For example, many
have advocated
for supportive employment, which by definition provides individualized
support in order to gain and maintain paid, socially integrated, and
employment. [35] Supportive employment offers individuals with intellectual
disabilities more equitable and inclusive employment opportunities, which
has overwhelmingly illustrated is the clear choice for persons with
intellectual disabilities. In one study of the job satisfaction for persons
with disabilities
in supported employment, done with individuals who had been involved in both
sheltered and supported employment, findings indicated that of those
placed in workshops, 92.8 percent stated they preferred their supported
positions to workshops. [36] In yet another study to examine perceived
in quality of life between individuals with disabilities in workshops and
individuals with disabilities in supported employment, it was generally
that there was a positive relationship between supported employment and
perceived quality of life as individuals in supported employment scored
in areas such as self-esteem, number of leisure activities undertaken, use
of leisure time, mobility, and job skill perceptions. [37] Not only are
more positive about their experiences within supported employment, but
research indicates supported employment is a more effective tool in job
than sheltered employment, evidenced by results that indicate individuals
assigned to supported employment do significantly better in competitive
than those from sheltered workshops. [38]

Outside of questions around the rights of persons with intellectual
disabilities to be protected from exploitive labor practices, these facts
call into
question the relevance of sheltered workshops with respect to their
usefulness in training or rehabilitation. Given the evidence that supported
is more equitable and beneficial to persons with intellectual disabilities,
it is clear that there are alternatives to sheltered work which are more in
line with the kinds of inclusive policies disability services should, in
theory, actively promote. The task at hand is for individuals and advocates
insist that the primary goal of disability services is to serve the needs of
persons with disabilities rather than the needs of outside contractors or
program administrators. Indeed, it is unacceptable that disability services
exist in which non-disabled parties are profiting at the expense of persons
with intellectual disabilities.

AuthorJihan Abbas is a Vanier Canada Graduate scholar and PhD candidate at
Carleton University in Ottawa. Her research interests include disability and
the labor market, social policy, and inclusion. Jihan has been involved in
the disability movement for several years and has extensive professional and
advocacy experience related to access and inclusion.


1. J.W. Trent, Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in
the United States, Berkley: University of California Press, 1994.

2. Ibid.,109

3. Ibid.

4. This appeared to be true in institutions and asylums in general and thus
this practice seems to have extended beyond the experience of those with

5. K. Johnson & R. Traustadottir, Deinstitutionalization and People with
Intellectual Disabilities: In and Out of Institutions, London: Jessica
Publishers, 2005.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Douglass, as cited in Trent, 109.

11. Trent.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. G. Reaume, Remembrance of Patients Past. Chapter 5 "Patients Labour"
(pp. 133-180). Oxford, 2000.

15. Ibid.

16. Trent.

17. Ibid.

18. Johnson & Traustadottir.

19. While some states, provinces and countries have closed institutions for
persons with intellectual disabilities, it is important to note that the
of institutionalizing persons with intellectual disabilities still persists
in many places. With this in mind, "deinstitutionalization" must be
as many individuals with intellectual disabilities still find themselves
incarcerated in these kinds of sites, as well as similar segregated sites
the community.

20. Johnson & Traustadottir.

21. L. Visier, "Sheltered employment for persons with disabilities,"
International Labour Review. 1998, 137(3): 347-365.

22. Ibid.

23. G. Reaume, "No Profits, Just a Pittance: Work, Compensation, and People
Defined as Mentally Disabled in Ontario," 1964-1990. In S. Noll & J. Trent
Mental Retardation in America. (pp. 466493). New York: University

24. P. Thornton & N. Lunt, Employment Policies For Disabled People in
Eighteen Countries: A Review, Gladnet Collection, Ithaca, NY: Cornell U.,

25. Ibid.

26. National Disability rights Network "Segregated & Exploited: The failure
of the Disability Services System to Provide Quality Work," January, 2011.

27. Ibid.

28. G. Albrecht, The Disability Business: Rehabilitation in America. London:
Sage Publications, 1992.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.

31. M. Hyde, "Sheltered and Supported Employment in the 1990s: the
experience of disabled workers in the UK.," Disability & Society. 1998,
13(2): 199-215.
Page 209.

32. J.K. Elder, R.W. Conely, & J.H. Noble, "The Service System," In W.E.
Kiernan & J.A. Stark (eds.) Pathways to employment for adults with
disabilities. Baltimore: Paul H Brookes, 1986, (53-66).

33. G. Reaume, "No Profits, Just a Pittance: Work, Compensation, and People
Defined as Mentally Disabled in Ontario, 1964-1990," In S. Noll & J. Trent
Mental Retardation in America. (pp. 466493), NY: New York: University Press,

34. J. Black, B. Hamson, & H. Ziegler, "Pricing Practices of Sheltered
Workshops Vs. Open Employment. Consumer Implications," Journal of
Intellectual &
Developmental Disability. 13(1) 1987: 53-57. Page 56

35. T. Little, Streetwise Guide to Supported Employment. Toronto: CMCS,

36. D. Test, K. Hinson, J. Solow, & P. Keul, "Job Satisfaction of Persons in
Supported employment," Education and Training in Mental Retardation, 1993,
28(1): 3846.

37. M. Sinnott-Oswald, J. Gliner, & K. Spencer, "Supported and Sheltered
Employment: Quality of Life Issues Among Workers with Disabilities,".
and Training in Mental Retardation. 1991: 26(4): 388-397.

38. R. Goldberg, M. McLean, R. LaVigne, J. Fratolillo, & F. Sulliva,
"Transition of Persons with Developmental Disability from Extended Sheltered
to Competitive employment," Mental Retardation, 1990 28(5):299-304.

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