As those with developmental disabilities are increasingly welcomed into community employment, organizations and businesses in the Columbus region are working to provide options beyond the traditional sheltered workshops.

Claire Hilty has been employed at the Church of the Redeemer United Methodist since July. There she vacuums the sanctuary, takes out the trash, cleans the bathrooms, makes the windows shine, wipes down tables and more. Neither she, nor her family, is quite sure they expected her to become employed so quickly, but both Hilty, 19, and her family are relieved she doesn’t have long hours at home alone anymore or at a day center, which isn’t her thing. Her employment is one small part of the slowly—but profoundly—changing landscape for individuals with developmental disabilities in the United States.

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case became a catalyst for change when it was decided that segregating those with developmental disabilities in residential and occupational life is akin to saying they are unable to, or unworthy of participating in community life. In 2016, there were an estimated 7.37 million people in the U.S. who had some form of intellectual or developmental disability, which is a term covering a diverse group of conditions that show up during development. Now, a new wave of young adults with developmental disabilities is graduating high school, leaving the services they received as children and, with their families, facing the next phase of their lives. As addressed in Olmstead v. L.C., few jobs are readily available to an individual with a developmental disability other than in sheltered workshop settings—a segregated form of work for individuals who may have barriers to job performance.

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Organizations running the workshops contract with various companies to do fulfillment work and bid on contracts, and workers are paid based on each completed “piece” at rates below minimum wage. Usually, an individual is assessed to see how quickly and accurately they can work compared to a person with no disabilities, and they are compensated based on that. Wages are reviewed every six months at minimum, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

There are five such employers in Central Ohio, including Arc Industries and Goodwill in Columbus, Open Arms Health Systems in Worthington, Alpha Group of Delaware and UCO Industries in Marysville, according to the labor department. Together, those five paid a total of 573 workers a subminimum wage as of April 2019 (Open Arms didn’t report a number). Across the state there are 80 such employers and of the 52 that disclosed, 4,621 workers were paid a subminimum wage. The number is likely much higher based on the 28 that didn’t report their amounts.

Letter: Disabled employees can earn more than minimum wage at UCO

Sheltered workshops were at one time a progressive step forward for individuals with developmental disabilities. Now, the continued presence of sheltered work environments is a debated issue. On one hand, keeping people in the environment can hold them back from learning vocational skills and making minimum wage in a traditional job, though some workshops are helping them transition to community employment. On the other, community work may never be right nor a preference for some, especially those who have been doing this kind of work for a long time or who have more profound disabilities.

One thing everyone can agree on is offering options.

“We think that we need to be investing in competitive pay models, and we focus more there,” says Kerstin Sjoberg, the assistant executive director at Disability Rights Ohio, a nonprofit advocating for the rights of people with disabilities that has filed multiple lawsuits around the issues of pay and availability of community-based living and working options. “We’re focusing on expanding options, not taking away options. I’m not a huge fan personally [of sheltered workshops], but we’ve never taken a policy position [that they] should go away, per se.” The focus of the organization has instead been on the idea that there’s not enough integrated employment options in Ohio and that time and energy should be spent on reaching out to people in sheltered workshops to explain their options and help them get through the process of learning skills, exploring types of employment and ultimately gaining jobs at minimum wage or higher.

“I think what’s important here in Ohio is that we understand and appreciate what sheltered employment does do for the individuals in Ohio,” says Stacy Collins, who leads the Employment First team at the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities. “We know it is part of who we are. It is important for people because that’s what some of our stakeholders are saying. But what we’re trying to do within our state is, how do we have multiple ways that individuals can get the jobs that they’re looking for and the support to get there? And making sure that individuals can truly make a choice.”

Jed Morison, CEO of the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities, also thinks a sheltered workshop environment can be a good option for some—those who are not quite ready for employment and those who have enjoyed that setting for much of their lives. He also points out that it is a comfortable social atmosphere for many. “Parents are who started the workshops years ago, and in many cases, feel very strongly that it’s a wonderful opportunity for folks,” he says. “But where people can be successful in employment, we want to encourage that and move folks into opportunities wherever we can.” The county board administers Medicaid waivers that provide funding to those with developmental disabilities for things like day services, employment coaching and residential support.

Sjoberg speculates about why people would want to continue working in a sheltered workshop, beyond it just being comfortable and not knowing of other options.

“There’s two things. One is someone may have worked in the community and they ended up with a bad experience, maybe they got fired, maybe they were bullied, maybe it just wasn’t a good fit for them,” she explains. “They weren’t getting the supportive services they needed. We can all relate to that. I’m sure everyone has had some bad employment experience in their life, but we still get back out there and do it again. And so we need to help people get back out there and do it again, with the appropriate support services.”

Arc Industries, a privately operated organization offering support services to those with developmental disabilities, offers sheltered work environments at its three locations, North, East and West (Arc South was consolidated in 2015). Inside the Arc West workshop, participants put buckeye candies in travel mugs and papers into plastic bags, and Arc employees walk around and offer help where needed. Arc participants paid less than minimum wage across the three locations total 387.

At Arc West, a building that looks deceptively small facing Dodridge Street, the workshop regularly provides fulfillment services for Pop Rocks candy, gluten-free Cheryl’s Cookies (which are baked in Arc’s gluten-free kitchen), promotional materials and more. “I would say it’s a tool in our toolbox,” says Bob Gaston, CEO of Arc Industries, where in addition to work, Arc provides a wide array of services and options to those it serves. It offers habilitation services such as teaching basic living skills, speech and psychological therapy, an art studio, grief support, community events like the popular tai chi, social and community activity opportunities such as taking trips to museums and malls, and day support for those who are not ambulatory.

Increasingly, another function of the workshops is to move people closer to community employment through the skills they may develop in that setting.—though not all families welcome that prospect.

“What I really try to stress is we have to be respectful of individuals who have been part of our program for 30 or 40 years,” says Gaston. “This is familiar to them, the parents supported this model and we said it was best practice. So as Ohio goes through this transformation to community-based, they’ve incorporated that sensitivity and the transition plan is that individuals who are 50 years and over, they are not going to force those individuals to move on to something they are not comfortable with.” Arc implemented four years ago what it calls a Career Discovery Flow Chart that moves participants along the path to community employment. Positions on the chart move through various attitudes and desires about work— “I don’t want to work but I may not know enough about it,” to “I have a job but would like a better one or to move up.” Around 500 people at Arc have gone through the process.

Arc is supporting about 840 participants in community-based employment at minimum wage or above, including those who are individually employed and those employed as a group at various businesses and job sites in Central Ohio. Another 155 participants are in the middle of Career Discovery or are in the process of seeking a job. Arc also offers many volunteering opportunities for participants as a “first step.” Gaston says once participants have been successful as volunteers, parents and participants are more open to the idea of community employment.

However, he thinks there will always be a place for facility-based services, whether that’s work or other services. “What that’ll look like 10 years from now I’m not really sure. I think it will evolve over time,” he says.

Goodwill Columbus, one of Central Ohio’s largest nonprofits, is phasing out its workshop offering with a goal to get people comfortable with working so they can gain jobs outside Goodwill. As of April, the organization was still compensating 98 individuals with subminimum wages as they received “employment training,” but last year it placed 220 people into their first job or helped them to advance—that number includes all groups Goodwill aids, not just those with developmental disabilities. The goal is to help all individuals with developmental disabilities try and retain community employment, but it’s a process. Goodwill, with its network of thrift stores, itself employs approximately 220 with a self-reported disability.

One Goodwill effort has been a partnership with Designer Brands (formerly DSW), Arc and the state of Ohio in 2018 to prepare people to work in warehouse and logistics settings. The opportunity is offered through Project Search, a program that prepares individuals with developmental disabilities for competitive jobs and had already been in place at Designer Brands for five years. There are eight Project Search programs set up in Central Ohio currently. Goodwill Columbus CEO Margie Pizzuti says that among the 20 to 30 larger logistics companies in Central Ohio, finding and retaining employees has been a struggle. Since the Project Search 24-week logistics program started with Designer Brands as its training site, 100 percent of the 56 participants with developmental disabilities have completed the program with an 85 percent rate of retention. “The great thing about this is they train more individuals than they can hire,” she says. “So they’ve got eight or 10 other logistics companies that they place those individuals with, and in fact, DHL is now a second training site. So the goal is to grow training sites. It’s a sector-based strategy that is really successful.”

In March, Gov. Mike DeWine met with Project Search participants at Designer Brands. He has made jobs for those with disabilities a top priority in his administration. Minutes into his term, DeWine signed an order making Ohio a “Disability Inclusion State and Model Employer of Individuals with Disabilities.” It requires all state agencies to increase recruitment, hiring and advancement of people with disabilities—including developmental disabilities—and allows the Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities state agency to serve about 4,000 more people with disabilities and purchase $10 million more in services from more than 360 services providers throughout Ohio. It will also help more businesses recruit employees and strengthen workplace diversity.

“What I found is when you enter an office, particularly governor, what you do in the first few days, people pay a lot of attention to, and you really can use that to tell people what you think is important,” says DeWine.

During his visit to Designer Brands, the governor asked participants what they enjoyed most about being employed. They said they loved getting paid, making friends and being independent, according to a Columbus Dispatch article.

“To date nearly 60 interns have graduated here, having learned not only warehousing and logistics skills but also leadership and other social skills that lead to long-term success,” Jeff Girard, senior vice president of distribution and logistics for Designer Brands and a Goodwill board member, said in an email. “We’re also very proud of the fact that all our graduates have gone on to full-time employment. In fact, it’s been so successful and rewarding that we’re exploring a similar program in one of our Columbus store locations. Our affiliation with the program is one of the partnerships of which we’re most proud.” The work is close to Girard’s heart—he has a son with developmental disabilities.

Goodwill also offers volunteering opportunities to its participants through what it calls The Community Experience. In 2018, the program offered more than 21,000 hours of service to 49 people in Central Ohio. 

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It is through Arc that Claire Hilty was introduced to Mark Prohaska, an employment specialist at the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Before 2019, Arc Industries was a government facility under the county board. It became privatized this year but the two organizations still work together. Hilty’s job at the church isn’t her first experience with community work. Prior to graduating from Groveport Madison High School in 2018, Hilty became part of Eastland-Fairfield Career Center’s Project Search program for a year. At Fairfield Medical Center, Hilty did a variety of jobs to get a feel for working and also to figure out what she liked to do. She discovered she had no interest in doing laundry but she loved doing office work and organizing marketing materials for the hospital, setting up and manning a table at an event and helping to sell merchandise. One time, she noticed that nursing students boarding buses to leave the hospital were all carrying bags she’d assembled for the marketing team. “They gave them the bags that I made,” she says with pride. During her time at Fairfield Medical Center, Hilty also became good friends with CEO Jack Janoso. “I clicked with [him],” she says. “He thought Claire was pretty funny,” says Claire Hilty’s mom, Penny Hilty.

After Project Search, Claire began meeting with Prohaska through Arc. They would talk and work on interview skills. During her time with him, Claire discovered she wanted to work in a relatively small setting without many people supervising her. Then Prohaska was contacted by the church and floated the opportunity to Penny, although he didn’t know if Claire would be interested, since custodial work is not what she imagined doing post-Project Search. The two of them visited the church and Rev. Richard Birk showed them around. During the tour, a woman from the church brought a poster she’d made for a food drive and Claire immediately led the charge on finding the perfect spot to hang it. She got the job. Down the road, Prohaska says Hilty will begin doing some church office work—filing and other things as they come up.

Claire says she wanted to find a job for “kind of the money and kind of because I was getting bored at the house and wanted something to do.” A couple months into her job, Claire has decided the job is a good fit for her. She loves her red and yellow vacuum. During the day, the sanctuary and lobby are peaceful except for the occasional laughter of children at vacation bible school—and one time, dinosaur noises. She likes to say hello to them. The sun slants in through a stained glass window and paints the floor with colors. Claire has the freedom to do her job without someone looking over her shoulder, like she wanted. At lunchtime she eats with other church staff members.

“It’s a great a stroke of luck,” her mom says. “Like, it just like fell into her lap. We thought, ‘Oh, no, [finding a job] is going to be really hard.’ ”

Claire’s work schedule at the church is perfect for her because it allows her to participate in Groveport Special Olympics, a chapter started by her mom and her sister, Cassandra.

Another Arc participant, 36-year-old Justin Martin, became an intern at Germain Nissan of Columbus on Morse Road through the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities and the Northeast Career Center, together with another young man. They added so much to the team that Germain Nissan hired them to detail cars in February 2018. Initially they wiped them down inside and out, then began vacuuming. Now, they also use buffers and a hose. They are assisted each shift by a job coach. The women working at the front desk always greet Martin warmly when he walks in, and his mom, Karen Martin, says the whole team has been welcoming to him. Brad Beer, Germain Automotive Partnership’s human resources director, is glad the two are there.

“I think it’s been really eye opening for a lot of our employees. I’m so proud of the employees because they have just totally embraced this whole process,” he says. “We were invited to the Franklin County Board of Developmental Disabilities director’s meeting and found out that we were the only organization that truly hired somebody from the internship program. Made us feel really good. We will continue to have them as long as they want to continue to have us.”

Karen Martin says she thinks more businesses should give individuals with developmental disabilities a try.

“It’s a good thing, no matter how small a job it may be,” she says. “Because I told Brad that if they don’t have cars to wash, Justin likes to shred. If you have a mountain of shredding, Justin’s your man. He’s gonna shred everything.”

There are many other businesses in the community that make it a point to employ those with disabilities, including developmental disabilities. Huntington National Bank is one example. It works with a variety of local organizations including Arc to recruit employees. Tom Poole, the bank’s senior vice president and talent acquisition director, says Huntington has employed more than 30 people referred by the organizations it works with. “Every individual has their own strengths and we try and find the right opportunity for them to be gainfully employed and contribute in a way that’s meaningful for them,” says Poole. For the past three years, Huntington has earned a 100 percent score on the Disability Equality Index, a tool created by a group of business leaders, policy experts and disability advocates that evaluates companies nationally and offers suggestions for improvement.

Kroger has been employing individuals with disabilities for many years. “I can tell you it is long enough that no one knows when it actually began,” says Jessica Kyle, Columbus recruiting and training manager. Rather than reaching out to organizations to hire these individuals, organizations contact Kroger.

“I think that part of what Kroger shoppers enjoy a lot is walking into their store and seeing their community, their friends, their neighbors, their church members. I think that people enjoy seeing their community reflected in their store.”

Employing people with developmental disabilities isn’t only good for the individual, but for the company. Collins says she’s found employing individuals with developmental disabilities helps companies meet their bottom line.

“Over the last several years when we’ve gone out and we’ve met with employers, we often hear some of the biggest struggles for employers is having enough people and being able to recruit individuals who will be open to learning, who attend every day, whose goals are about meeting productivity and who really just are committed to the work,” she says. “When we’ve met with those businesses and we’ve connected them with individuals with disabilities, what we’ve seen is their turnover percentages actually go down.”

Organizations and businesses continue to push forward, participating in the changing vision for the lives of individuals with developmental disabilities by moving toward a model of community involvement; by offering spots to those who previously didn’t have one.

Claire Hilty wonders if someday she’ll move on to a different job—maybe in marketing— like she enjoyed during her days at Fairfield Medical Center. For now, she’s content. The day of our interview, she received her first paycheck. She says she plans to save some of it for an upcoming trip to Disney World, use some of it to feed her mom and sister dinner (maybe) and put the rest in savings.

“An ideal world,” says DeWine, “is that every Ohioan has the meaningful opportunity to live up to their God-given potential, and to exercise the skills they have, and to get the education they need, so that whatever innate ability they have can be flowered and multiply. So that includes people certainly with disabilities, and it’s important that each one of them be given the opportunity—and that opportunity includes working outside of a sheltered workshop.”