The following post appears courtesy of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Eve Hill for the Civil Rights Division
President Obama recently emphasized the serious problem of income inequality across the United States and the Administration’s commitment to making sure our economy works for everyone. People with disabilities, in particular, are being excluded from the middle class and from accessing important ladders of opportunity. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is an important tool for challenging assumptions and discrimination that trap people with disabilities in poverty and segregation. And people with disabilities are showing that, when given a chance, they can participate in the middle class economy, contribute to their communities and achieve the American Dream.
For the past 30 years Steven Porcelli has done what millions of Americans do: he wakes up, goes to work and earns a paycheck. The fact that Steven has an intellectual disability has never stopped him from seeking to earn a living. But, for most of Steven’s life he has had little choice other than to work in a segregated, sheltered workshop where he’s earned a sub-minimum wage and has had little to no contact with workers without disabilities.
Steven is one of about 90 individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who spent years working at the sheltered workshop and day program provider in Rhode Island. There, workers sat along cafeteria-style tables for long hours and were assigned tasks such as assembling, sorting, packing and labeling various products. Because this company held a Section 14(c) certificate under the Fair Labor Standards Act, it was permitted to pay individuals with disabilities sub-minimum wages, however, the Department of Labor found that the company was violating its Section 14(c) certificate and paying its workers far less than they should have been paid—usually under $2 per hour.
In June 2013 the U.S. Department of Justice entered into an interim settlement agreement with the state of Rhode Island and the city of Providence that addresses the rights of workers with disabilities to receive employment and day activity services in their community. After an investigation, the Department of Justice found that individuals at the sheltered workshop were not being served in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, in violation of Title II of the ADA, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C.
Since implementation of the agreement, with the help of state and federal employment services, Steven is flourishing in his new job at a local small business headquartered in Warwick, R.I. Steven works Monday through Friday alongside peers without disabilities and earns minimum wage (which increased on Jan. 1, 2014 under a new state law). When asked what it means to Steven to realize his 30-year goal of working in the community, Steven responded, “It is a big achievement for me; I’ve been waiting a long time for this.” Steven enjoys working in an office setting, and because of his self-advocacy, he persuaded his employer to provide him with computer training, which will enable him to expand his skill set and advance his career.
The president of the company initially did not know what to expect from Steven, but quickly realized he had invested well. As company president, he initially thought hiring Steven was an important demonstration of his civic responsibility, but he now acknowledges that it simply made good business sense, as his business’ bottom line is served by Steven’s hard work, dedication, and positive attitude. He has expressed feeling very fortunate to count Steven among his staff.
For the past seven years, Peter Maxmean, another former sheltered workshop service recipient, was earning approximately $1.50 per hour. Now, however, Peter has a job earning more than minimum wage working for the state of Rhode Island as a custodian at a hospital. Peter points out that janitorial work is a great fit for him because he is “good with his hands and loves to clean,” and that he has a great relationship with his supervisors, who entrust him with significant responsibility to accomplish his work independently.
Peter’s new job has also provided financial freedom. For the first time in his life, at age 37, Peter was able to purchase a new mattress. Before, he slept on a couch and a 30-year-old mattress he inherited from his mother. Peter has recently completed driving lessons, received his driver’s license and is saving up to purchase a car.
Peter has been together with his fiancé Laurie for almost five years. They met at their prior employer and Laurie is currently in the process of transitioning to community employment. For this couple, Steven Porcelli, and the rest of the service recipients at the sheltered workshop, the dreams that other Americans take for granted can now be theirs and the future looks brighter than ever.
Click here to learn more about the Rhode Island interim settlement agreement. For more general information about the Justice Department’s ADA Olmstead enforcement efforts, visit the Civil Rights Division’s Olmstead: Community Integration for Everyone website.