An Open Letter to the Senate and Assembly

To the New Jersey Assembly and Senate:

Employment in the state of New Jersey is one of the biggest challenges we face with a recovering economy, an unemployment rate above the national average and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. For people with disabilities across the state, the demand for employment is even greater.

For people with disabilities, employment is not only a lifeline to independence, but also creates purpose and drive in an otherwise obstacle ridden society. For the past 150 years, sheltered workshops have been the model used nationwide in filling the employment demand in the disability community. That being said, a recent publication by Disability Rights New Jersey (DRNJ) has cast a shadow on the viability of sheltered workshops, painting them as places of neglect, abuse and segregation. The DRNJ publication has gained momentum throughout the disability community, both as a source of advocacy and contention between self-advocates and family members, respectively. The DRNJ publication even gained enough momentum to spark the response of DHS Commissioner Jennifer Velez, stating that New Jersey would examine ceasing workshop funding and phase out of the model.

The statement on behalf of Commissioner Velez ignited an array of responses ranging from excitement to outrage and concern over the future of their family member’s supports during the work week. For many, sheltered workshops not only provide monetary incentives for people with disabilities, but they also serve as a day program. The complete elimination of sheltered workshops would increase the demand for day programs across the state, as well as eliminate employment entirely for many people with disabilities.

The truth of the matter is that sheltered workshops are ultimately a business and a resource to people with disabilities. Workshops are intended to provide vocational training for people with disabilities and job skills that they can transfer to employment in the future. The viability of sheltered workshops is not a” black and white – open or close” issue. We can all agree that abuse, neglect and segregation that occurs in sheltered workshops needs to end, however, the capabilities of sheltered workshops and their employees should not be negated due to the troubled history of the workshops. The New American Movement suggests that the Legislature examine sheltered workshops with the same critical eye as it examines all businesses that receive federal dollars.
Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibits employee discrimination in any business that receives government dollars. Being that sheltered workshops receive federal and state funding, sheltered workshops should revise its structure to fulfill desegregation of people with disabilities in the workplace. This means, to make things fair, that people with disabilities and people without disabilities should have equal opportunities to work in sheltered workshops. An integrated sheltered workshop environment would not only end the segregation of people with disabilities, but open workshops up to additional private contracts and increasing their viability as a business.

The New American Movement Team asks you to reconsider the limits placed on sheltered workshops as a business, and open the doors to the workshop to integration and supported employment. Your state constituents rely on employment: reevaluate employment in the disability community.

Thank you,

The New American Movement Team

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