The Department of Justice and other federal agencies have been taking a hard look at some of the places where people with disabilities are sent to work when state or federal agencies set up jobs programs intended to help them. Most often, these are programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities who would like to work in as meaningful jobs as possible instead of relying entirely on subsistence from the Supplemental Security Income program.

Unfortunately, it seems that some of these programs have completely failed to offer meaningful work experiences for people with disabilities. In May, several federal agencies filed a civil rights lawsuit against a turkey processing operation that had, with state approval, provided work for adult men with developmental disabilities for four decades. The agencies discovered that the men had been forced to work on the evisceration line for untold hours at $0.40 an hour. The men were chained to their beds at night to prevent their escape and run through a gauntlet of shaming and beatings when they complained. 32 of the men were eligible for the lawsuit and were awarded $240 million.

Recently, the Justice Department found a similar situation in Rhode Island. The agency’s Civil Rights Division found that some high school students with developmental disabilities were sent off to work — at meaningless tasks such as bagging and labeling items for sale — instead of attending school. They were paid an average of $0.50 to $2.00 an hour, and some complained that they were forced to work all day and sometimes on weekends to make production quotas.

This was meant to be a transitional vocational program for high school students. Instead, however, they were simply put into the program and taken out of school. Once they graduated, they were offered no opportunities for more meaningful work even when they requested it. Instead, they were funneled straight through the high school program into unnecessarily segregated, workshops provided by state contractors, where they were expected to spend the rest of their lives.

Luckily, this was found to violate the civil rights of the disabled students. The third-party segregated workshops have been closed down. Under a consent decree between the Justice Department, the City of Providence, and the State of Rhode Island, the state vocational program will now have to provide students with disabilities with supportive employment services that actually help them “find, get, keep and succeed in real jobs with real wages.”

People often claim that Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries should just go get jobs, never asking how difficult that would be. With societal prejudice against people with disabilities, it can be hard enough to find a job without states directly handicapping your chances.

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