- Associated Press - Saturday, January 21, 2017

LEVITTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Rosie Hickman’s gloved hands deftly threaded the ends of a black plastic strap through a thin metal buckle. Through, over, and back again.

She threw the completed piece into a box, pausing just long enough to chat with a visitor before picking up the next roll. Through, over, back. Repeat.

“I love my job,” she said. “I love the buckles.”

Hickman has been attaching buckles and performing other simple tasks for more than three decades as a client of Associated Production Services Inc., a Lower Southampton nonprofit that provides vocational training to adults with disabilities. But now, APS officials fear that work may be coming to an end, leaving folks like Hickman with no place to go.

The state Department of Human Services’ Office of Developmental Programs has developed a plan to move more disabled adults into the community from so-called sheltered workshops like APS, which has hundreds of people doing jobs such as assembly and packaging. While state officials say the plan wouldn’t end sheltered workshops, it would limit the number of people they could serve as well as the hours those clients could spend in such facilities.

The plan is meant to answer the demand for more inclusion from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which provides the bulk of funding for home- and community-based services for those with disabilities. New rules, passed in 2014, would cut federal funding by 2019 for programs deemed to segregate people with disabilities from the general community, such as sheltered workshops.

Advocates for the changes say they reflect increased opportunities for those with disabilities to find meaningful employment and be integrated into the community.

“People have proven over and over again that (those with disabilities) can be more and more involved and integrated,” said Nancy Thaler, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Developmental Programs. “The bar gets raised as to what integration is; people meet expectations and exceed them over and over again. The first federal rules created the opportunity for people to be integrated. This version of the federal rules expects that people will be.”

Yet those who run sheltered workshops like APS believe the changes strip families of the right to choose what’s best for loved ones who are unable to choose for themselves. They also believe the plan will put them out of business, since they couldn’t perform the work required under their contracts with businesses. Closure, they fear, would leave vulnerable clients without the full-time, meaningful employment they enjoy.

“Our ultimate philosophy, believe it or not, would be to put ourselves out of business,” said APS founder and CEO Jay Belding, a former special education teacher who founded the organization 40 years ago. “The ideal is that people are trained and ready and they get an opportunity to find full-time employment at more than minimum wage, maybe with benefits, and life would be good. That’s our goal. The reality of reaching that goal is where we have some disagreement. What’s the probability, what’s it take to get there, is it in the best interests of all people being served, and is it something the families and the workers want?”

APS has 575 clients working at six facilities in Lower Southampton, Northampton, Northeast Philadelphia and Bethlehem. Jobs include attaching buckles to plastic straps, affixing labels, packaging cough drops and using equipment to heat-seal packages of air fresheners. APS’ customers include a wide variety of international consumer product and confection companies that need to assemble and package goods for U.S. customers, Belding said.

The agency’s clients learn specific job skills related to the tasks at hand, he said, but they also receive training on proper workplace behavior, flexibility, conflict resolution and normal daily tasks such as clocking in and taking breaks. “The model is really very simple,” Belding said. “You’re learning by doing.”

Clients also receive individual attention from APS caseworkers whose jobs are designed to help workers succeed and understand the challenges they may face - something that Belding fears would be missing from a competitive work environment.

“I don’t want to emphasize the disability,” he said. “I’m trying to show the ability. We’re showing people that our folks can participate in a fairly significant way toward their own financial support, integration into the economic mainstream of the community, and that we’re providing them with an opportunity to grow to their greatest physical potential.”

Nonprofit sheltered workshops like APS qualify under federal Department of Labor rules to pay clients below minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in Pennsylvania. Instead of making an hourly rate, most clients are paid by the piece of work they complete. Pay varies by job; the more difficult the task, and the more pieces clients complete, the more money they earn. Some biweekly paychecks are just enough to buy a typical restaurant dinner, while others may help pay some household bills, APS officials and family members said.

The low wages are a key point for critics of sheltered workshops.

“If you’re making pennies per hour to do something, that tells you something about the value of your work, whether the employer intends it to or not,” said Chris Danielsen, public relations director for the National Federation of the Blind, an advocacy organization that opposes sheltered workshops. “That’s a pernicious piece of it.”

Danielsen added that such workshops also set low standards for disabled adults who could, and should be encouraged to, do more.

“These are people that are told, and their families are told, ‘You’re not ever going to do any better than this,’” he said. “That’s the signal that’s sent.”

That said, even advocates admit that finding competitive employment for disabled workers is difficult. The unemployment rate for people with physical and developmental disabilities was 10.7 percent in 2015 — twice the national average, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only around 17 percent of employment-age adults with disabilities have a job, and most of those jobs tend to be part time and low wage, data showed.

“That is not going to get better as long as this type of sheltered employment exists,” said Danielsen. “You need more people with disabilities to be integrated into the community in order for attitudes to continue to change.”

Maureen Cronin, executive director of disability advocacy group The ARC of Pennsylvania, believes the issue is far more complex. While more resources are now available, she said many families still rely on sheltered workshops to provide a safe and supportive environment for loved ones.

“I have friends who are successfully employed at a workshop,” she said. “It’s working for them and it’s working for their families. We need to focus on the people who want to work in the community settings. As we transition, let’s try to figure out how to honor people who are in these (sheltered workshop) settings, and do a transition that makes sense. We all want the same thing. We want to have people with disabilities to have the exact same opportunities as people without disabilities. But we have to look at our reality. You can’t just make that happen.”

Some states have eliminated sheltered workshops. But that’s not the intent in Pennsylvania, which has 21,000 adults in workshop or day-training programs, said Thaler, of the state Office of Developmental Programs.

Under the state’s proposal, a new service called “community participation support” would be born from the workshop setting. Clients could continue attending a day-training center or sheltered workshop, but, over time, they’d have to spend more time in the community in competitive employment, volunteer work or recreational activities. That starts at 25 percent community involvement by January 2018 and grows to 75 percent in 2019.

Sheltered workshops would be limited to a maximum of 100 clients per facility. Other proposed changes would include new employment services, ranging from benefits counseling to services to help waiver recipients obtain and keep competitive jobs in the community.

The state is accepting public comment on the proposed rule changes through Tuesday. They then will review submissions, possibly make changes to the plan, and submit the final proposal to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in March, Thaler said.

In the meantime, Thaler urges parents and guardians not to panic that their loved ones will suddenly have no place to go.

“This will evolve over time with each person,” she said. “We’re not going to make anybody get a job. We’re not going to push anybody into anything. We’re pressing providers to create opportunities and support people to have more experiences. Families who have come to count on their family member having something to do every day will have something to do every day.”

Yet people like Bill Payne, director of vocational services for the Indian Creek Foundation, are still concerned. Seventy-five adults work in a sheltered workshop run by the Montgomery County human services organization.

“Best case scenario, of the 75 folks, we have 20 who might be able to find employment,” Payne said. “They’re not going to find full-time employment. That’s highly unlikely. What are they going to do with the rest of their day? Are the options that they’re left with what they really want? It’s all about individual choice. The choices that we are giving people have become limited. They won’t have the option to work in a facility like ours.”

Amanda Hare rises every morning at 5:15 to dress, make her lunch and wait for a bus to take her from her Ambler home to APS’ Northampton facility. The 41-year-old, who has Down syndrome, has been working at APS since she graduated from Wissahickon High School 20 years ago.

The jobs she performs vary, but she especially likes to work on the cough drop line. That’s where she can earn the most money - sometimes more than $200 in her bi-weekly paycheck.

“She likes to know she’s going to get a paycheck at the end of two weeks,” said her mother, Deborah Derbyshire. “It’s a material thing to her, that she can see and touch. She has her own bank account.”

Hare might be able to find competitive employment, Derbyshire said, but it would likely be part time, leaving her on her own much of the day. Her mother also worries about how she’d be received in the community. She’s difficult to understand and she’s bald from alopecia, a condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s hair follicles.

“In a conventional work space, she might have to deal with bullying,” Derbyshire said. “I don’t like to think there are mean people out there, but there are.”

Judy Bergman also worries about her son, Douglas, who has been working at APS since he was a senior at Abington High School. Now 36 and living in a group home in East Norriton, her son, who has autism, works three days a week at APS in Northampton.

“Doug is very high-functioning as far as being able to do production work,” Judy Bergman said. “He’s able to work in an assembly line. But every once in a while, he has an emotional outburst that would cause him to be fired from any regular job. Maybe it’s once a year, maybe it’s once every year and a half. We never know, because he doesn’t know. But it precludes it from working from anywhere else.”

APS support staff understand and know how to help calm him down, she said.

“He loves it (APS),” she said. “And when he brings home his paycheck, he is so proud. … he feels so productive and important and fulfilled by this work. Without it, I don’t know what would happen to him.”

While in Truman High School’s life-skills program, Bobby DeNucci, now 23, had a job at a local retirement home, said his mother, Sharon. But while he enjoyed the job, his developmental delays left him struggling to understand the tasks as how to behave appropriately, she said.

“I honestly wouldn’t know what his options would be (without APS),” Sharon DeNucci said. “He didn’t have a lot of options when he graduated. He knows the structure at APS. He understands he has to go in. He knows the job he has to do. They’ve very good at working with him. No one is going to guarantee that for me. No one is going to guarantee that safe environment.”

Parents of APS clients who were interviewed said their adult children enjoy the work - and the routine of going to work. Some also said they worried about their children’s safety, particularly in light of the recent incident in Chicago, where the beating of a mentally disabled teenager was broadcast on social media.

“It’s (APS) the best thing that could have happened to him,” said Northampton resident Drew Watson, whose son, Jeffrey, has worked there for two years. “I’m so glad he could have gone to a place like that.”

For Belding, the issue comes down to the right for parents and those with disabilities to choose.

“When (federal officials) looked at the Americans with Disabilities Act, they saw that by congregating people together and segregating them, you were violating their civil rights,” he said. “But what other rights are you violating when you take away choice and options? We believe (that there) should be a progressive hierarchy of work training and experience that has as its ultimate goal to get everybody out, but (which) is focused on doing the very best job of getting people ready, so they’re in a place they’re comfortable at, earning money at, and are producing at the highest level they can and they want to achieve.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2jo5XIy

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com

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