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Sheltered workshops for disabled face uncertainty from proposed Pennsylvania rules

| Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017, 10:33 p.m.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Stephen Short, 55, shreds documents at the Westmoreland County Blind Association workshop in Southwest Greensburg.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Billy Crawford, 25, shreds documents at the Westmoreland County Blind Association workshop in Southwest Greensburg.
Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Mark Quist, 47, removes film from reels so that it can be shredded at the Westmoreland County Blind Association workshop in Southwest Greensburg.

Stephen Short smiled as he paused to talk to a visitor at the Southwest Greensburg document-shredding facility at the Westmoreland County Blind Association, where he works five days a week.

“I love my work, and I love working here,” said the 55-year-old Hempfield man, who has an intellectual disability. “They want to shut this down. Why should they? We didn't do anything wrong.”

It is a sentiment many workers at the South Main Street location repeated as Tim Miller, the association's executive director, led a tour of the workplace that shredded 1.6 million pounds of documents and film last year.

Proposed state regulations would limit the amount of time people can spend in pre-vocational facilities, more commonly known as sheltered workshops. Miller maintains that the proposals, which would require workshops to integrate clients into competitive work or community settings would strip people with disabilities of the right to choose facilities such as his that provide thousands with work and a structured day in a safe place.

Short is among some five dozen disabled workers who are paid below minimum wage at the Blind Association facility that is funded largely through Medicaid reimbursements. Workers' disabilities include various levels of brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, low vision and cerebral palsy.

Sheltered workshops were among the first places many disabled people landed when Pennsylvania began closing state hospitals four decades ago. For many families, the workshops are a mainstay that allows them to keep a disabled son or daughter in their home.

John Morrow of Bear Rocks said his daughter Cindy, 52, has worked at the Blind Association workshop for 25 years. She is blind and has cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. He worries about what the proposed changes to workshop regulations could mean for her and close to 20,000 others who are enrolled in sheltered workshops and adult training facilities across Pennsylvania.

“She enjoys the camaraderie there, being with the people and having a sense of accomplishment. She's gained skills,” Morrow said. “If that place wasn't there, I don't know what she would do. There would be nothing for her.”

Planned changes

Faced with a growing list of laws, court rulings and federal regulations promoting integration and inclusion of handicapped workers in the competitive job market, Pennsylvania is weighing new guidelines that would require such facilities to ensure their clients gradually transition to competitive employment or volunteer work in the community.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2018, through June 30, 2018, clients in workshops and adult training facilities would be permitted to spend only 75 percent of their allotted time in such a facility, with the remainder of the time spent in the community.

From July 1, 2018, through Dec. 31, 2018, their time spent in the special facilities would be reduced to 50 percent.

Beginning March 1, 2019, the proposal calls for participants to be in such facilities only 25 percent of the time and in community settings 75 percent of the time.

Rather than overseeing clients in their workshops and training facilities, providers would be required to get them into community settings — be it outside jobs, volunteer work or community settings such as gyms, malls and other public places where they can be part of society at large.

The state Department of Human Services' Office of Developmental Programs is accepting public comments on the proposed changes through Tuesday. The office has been inundated with feedback, said Nancy Thaler, deputy secretary.

Miller has been among those leading a charge against the proposed changes here and across the nation. He said the Blind Association workshop could continue to operate under the proposed changes, but she fears they are not realistic.

“I've always been taught the most important thing for people with disabilities is that they have a right to choose where they want to be and what they want to do,” Miller said as a workshop participant walked by sporting a ball cap emblazoned with the message “My Work, My Choice.”

“It's always a hope that people who come here can learn skills, whether they be getting along with others or how to get a job and work in the community. But we have a dozen people here who were out in the community and came back. They don't want to go back into the community,” he said.

Although the state's proposals may be fine-tuned, Thaler said change is coming. The proposed rules are a response to federal regulations that require states to have programs in place by March 2019.

Thaler said the 511 workshops and adult training centers that provide services across the state won't be put out of business, but they will be forced to change.

“We know change is never easy,” Thaler said.

She cited Maryland, Connecticut and Oklahoma — where 60 to 70 percent of intellectually disabled adults are in competitive employment — as models for Pennsylvania, where only 17 percent are in such positions.

Fostering inclusion

Maureen Cronin is executive director of the ARC of Pennsylvania, a statewide advocacy organization for people with intellectual disabilities. She began working in the disability community in the 1970s at the Pennhurst State School and Hospital, which opened in 1908 as the Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic. The facility in Chester County was named in the 1978 court ruling that sparked the exodus of thousands of intellectually disabled people from such institutions into the community. Pennhurst closed in 1987.

Cronin said the majority of people with disabilities can function in competitive employment and in the community with proper preparation and support. Indeed, it is an expectation among younger families with children who have disabilities.

“School is more inclusive today for people with disabilities. Students are educated alongside their peers so when they graduate, there is a greater expectation to participate in their community either as a volunteer or an employee,” Cronin said. “We believe our world is a better place when diversity is honored. And when you are part of your community, you are safer.”

Cronin conceded there will always be some individuals with medical or behavioral issues who won't be able to function in the community. But that number is far smaller than many imagine, she said.

That was the approach Achieva took when its board voted to begin phasing out its workshops in November 2015.

The nonprofit organization operated four sheltered workshops in Allegheny County and one in Greensburg, where participants performed a wide range of work from small unit assembly and bolt sorting to stuffing envelopes, collating documents and assembling packaging.

Achieva closed its Wilkinsburg workshop Jan. 1 and by the end of the year plans to phase out workshop operations at its Greensburg facility, which has 120 participants.

Though it won't be simple, Achieva is committed to providing education and support, and to preparing its clients for a fuller life in the community, said Shayne Roos, the organization's vice president of support services.

“It's complicated. It's challenging, but we are enthusiastic about the new service definitions,” Roos said. “Those new regulations really got us talking as an organization about how we would comply. Ultimately as we had those conversations, we felt it was the right thing to do.”

Lawmakers want to ensure it is done right.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, said constituents have raised concerns and plan to testify at a House public hearing in February.

“I'm not against the changes, but I think the changes should not be all-inclusive,” Nelson said. “We're just requesting that individuals have a choice (of) what program to participate in.”

While Cronin believes this is part of the natural evolution of services for those with disabilities, she agreed it is important to address such concerns.

“You can't blink your eyes and make it happen overnight,” Cronin said. “We have to have a transition and make sure there are not casualties in this transition.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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