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People With Disabilities Facing Changes In Employment Options

In late July President Obama signed the Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act. The bill is designed to get people with disabilities working in commercial businesses, and get them out of service provider owned companies, known as “sheltered workshops.” State officials here in Wyoming are on board with these changes, but some providers say closing sheltered workshops will leave people with disabilities with few options.

On a sticky hot afternoon at the NOWCAP Computer Recycling Center in Casper men sitting at rows of workstations are taking computers apart, piece by piece. Clay Carr is working on an old Dell laptop.  

“My goal is to take the screws out of here and get this out of here,” says Clay Carr, 51, “and take the parts apart.”

Carr says he likes working here, but it has only been a month, and he is still learning the ropes-- “still a greenhorn,” in his words.  

But, this recycling center isn’t an ordinary business. Carr has a learning disability, and everyone else working here also lives with a disability. And NOWCAP isn’t just their employer, it’s also their daily service provider, which means its allowed to pay them less than the federal minimum wage of 7.25 an hour.

This is what’s known as a sheltered workshop. But it may not be around much longer, says JD Wolfe, NOWCAP’s Assistant Director.

NOWCAP and other disability service providers are mainly funded through medicaid payments. Now Wyoming says it won’t pay keep the computer recycling center or at least 8 other sheltered workshops in the state open. Wolfe says up to 100 people working at NOWCAP’s sheltered workshops will lose their jobs.

The new rules say providers need to help their clients get commercial jobs, at places like fast food restaurants or department stores. But Wolfe says the state isn’t providing enough funds.

“One to one job coaching is pretty darn expensive. They are just simply not putting their money where their mouth is to make this happen.”

Wolfe says the biggest problem is that, no matter how much job coaching they get, many people with disabilities will just never be ready for a ‘real’ job.

“Employers, in the community, do not employ people at certain disability levels. Whether we like to hear that language or not-- whether that is part of the grand vision or not--that is the reality we live in.”

That’s simply not true says Calob Taylor, Policy Analyst for Wyoming Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“If you are paying someone twenty five cents an hour to clean campgrounds there is probably something they can do for a real wage.”

Taylor says sheltered workshops were always meant to be a temporary position on the way to a commercial job. But that hasn’t been happening.

“Those people go into the sheltered workshops, and stay there for years and years and years. ”

And while the rest of the country has moved from sheltered workshops in the last few years, they’ve gotten more popular in Wyoming. In 2004, twenty five percent of people with disabilities in the Cowboy state held commercial jobs. By 2011, that had fallen to seventeen percent. Taylor says that now Wyoming needs to catch up.

Lunchtime at Pizza Hut in Casper is pretty busy, but for Michael Sterritt its just another day at work.

“I assemble boxes and I assemble ready bags,” Sterritt says during a break in the action. “And I portion out chicken wings, and chicken drumsticks.”

Sterritt has worked at Pizza Hut for almost twelve years. He’s also blind, and has Asperger's syndrome. He says it can be hard sometimes, like when computer passwords change or inventory gets moved around, but his job is really important to him.

“I think its good for now, mixing with different kinds of people. Another thing I like is being busy, and being part of the team”

Chris Workman is a manager at the franchise. He says he has learned a lot working with Sterritt.

“You can’t determine someone’s work ethic just because he has a disability I guess. It is really amazing to see all the stuff he does even though he is blind. It is pretty neat.”

IREACH2 is the disability service provider that helped Sterritt get hired at Pizza Hut. Tina Conley, IREACH2’s executive director, supports the push for jobs like Sterritt’s. But she says their needs to be a wide variety of options.

“Because not everybody is a good fit,” she says. “It should be about having options available just like you and I have options about where we work.”

Back at NOWCAP’s recycling center Clay Carr says he doesn’t want to have to find a job in town.

“My view is I kind of like doing what I am doing now. I kind of feel secure here at this job.”

But whether he likes it or not, change is coming. The state’s new funding plan should be fully in place by next summer. 

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