Students with developmental disabilities can struggle to find work. And a new federal law has made it even harder.

By Humera Lodhi, Jiwon Choi, Emil Lippe

Community colleges are now receiving financial benefits for offering short-term training like veterinary assistant programs. The American Board receives funds to cover the cost of teaching certification programs. However, students can no longer work at sheltered workshops-- places that provide employment for those with developmental disabilities.


All of these changes are a result of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, a national law which passed with bipartisan support and was implemented this past July. It aims to make finding employment easier for people who have a hard time getting a job.  According to Kit Brewer, director of Randolph County Sheltered Industries, it actually made finding work more difficult for students with special needs.


“Their intent is very, very positive and that intent is to enable everyone to reach their fullest potential with regards to employment,” Brewer said. “The actual fact is WIOA put in a lot more regulatory steps, particularly for those individuals 25 and younger”




















While many people have benefitted from the new legislation, the act has been a concern for youth at sheltered workshops. These workshops help integrate students into the competitive workforce environment. Many people with developmental disabilities struggle to adjust to the idea of a work day, Brewer said. The workshops provide a safe space to become more comfortable and confident working.

“Some of our folks, they've been allowed to sort of skip some of the hygiene steps or cultural courtesy steps that many of us would take for granted or would have had different training level for. They don't have another outlet to learn that except to be in a group setting and have those skills taught to them,” Brewer said. “What we also do as sheltered employers is teach things like attendance, to teach things like hygiene, basic math skills, basic financial skills. All of those things are lacking for many of our employees and for them to be ready to move to that competitive marketplace, they've got to feel comfortable in those arenas.”

However, section 511 of the act prohibits school districts from entering into contracts with employers who pay subminimum wage to students 25 and under. This includes sheltered workshops, which pay on a sliding scale wage. Employees are paid based on their ability to perform in relation to non-disabled person. According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, if a person takes two hours to produce what a non-disabled person would produce in one hour, they would be paid half the price. The work is still be valued equally and compensated at the same rate.

Sheltered workshops in Missouri were working with local school districts when the act was implemented. The purpose of the partnerships:  Help students adjust to a work environment. But the new law ended that, according to Bruce Young, president of Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers.


“I got several calls in the first part of May basically asking, ‘What can we do,’” Young said. “The only thing I could tell them was, ‘I'm sorry but the fact is your students can't come here anymore, because when WIOA goes into effect as it did on July 22 that prohibits you from bringing students here any longer.’”

While many students in sheltered workshops eventually moved on to a competitive workforce, some actually move back from the mainstream job market into these workshops. Young said some employees face harassment or bullying from co-workers. They move back into workshops to feel less isolated and to be around friends.


“We have had a number of students who have actually gone into competitive employment and have had issues either with coworkers or things like that, where they just were not happy,” Young said. “That's why we think the shelter workshop is so important. It provides a choice for those employees if they decide that, ‘no that other type of job is not what I want.’”


In some other states, students were mandated to work in sheltered workshops. Missouri, however, has always left the choice up to students and their families. Under the act, JW Gibbs, legislative chair of Missouri Association of Sheltered Workshop Managers said, that choice is eliminated.


“This is all about choice for the individual. You and I can choose where we want to work. You and I can choose: are we willing to work for that wage or not work for that wage. We can choose who we want to work with or who we don’t want to work with,” Gibbs said. “That's one of the unintended consequences. WIOA is basically dictating not only to the individual but also their parents.”


Gibbs’ young son has developmental disabilities. He has many years until he graduates from school, but Gibbs worries about what the future holds for him.

“Part of what I'm looking for is with when I work with him to plan his life out,” Gibbs said “I want to have every choice available for him so that we can find a good place and a good fit for him.”