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#zerobarriersFreedom Friday

Freedom Friday: How Minnesota is failing the disabled

By March 18, 2016No Comments

person stacking food cans

The state is segregating thousands of disabled adults in isolating jobs and homes. Many feel trapped, unable to lead independent lives.

In a field on the outskirts of town, a man with Down syndrome is spending another day picking up garbage.

Rhude, 33, earns $2 an hour. He longs for more rewarding work — maybe at Best Buy, he says, or a library. But that would require personalized training, a job counselor and other services that aren’t available.

“He is stuck, stuck, stuck,” said his mother, Mary Rhude. “Every day that he works at the landfill is a day that he goes backward.”

Rhude is one of thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities who are employed by facilities known as sheltered workshops. They stuff envelopes, package candy or scrub toilets for just scraps of pay, with little hope of building better, more dignified lives.

The workshops are part of a larger patchwork of state policies that are stranding legions of disabled Minnesotans on grim margins of society. More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Americans with disabilities have a right to live in the mainstream, many disabled Minnesotans and their families say they still feel forsaken — mired in profoundly isolating and sometimes dangerous environments they didn’t choose and can’t escape.

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling, known as Olmstead, that prohibits states from unnecessarily confining people with disabilities in special homes or workplaces (as well as nursing facilities). In a broad reading of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the court said that fairness demands not just access to buses and buildings, but to a life of dignity and respect. People with a wide range of disabilities call it their “Brown vs. Board of Education.”

From a taxpayer’s perspective, the workshop model is highly inefficient. It costs roughly $52,000 to create a sheltered workshop job that pays at least minimum wage, state records show. That’s nearly 10 times the $5,300 it costs to help a disabled worker get a job in the community, according to a 2010 survey by the Department of Human Services.

“We have entire communities of people with disabilities in this state who have zero choice,” said Derek Nord, a University of Minnesota scholar who specializes in disability policy. “They live in closed systems with no obvious way out.”

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