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Sheltered Workshops: History and Definition

Synopsis: Information and history of the term sheltered workshop in relation to disabilities.1

Author: Thomas C. Weiss Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2014-02-18 Updated: 2017-06-28

Main Digest

Sheltered workshops first appeared in America more than a century ago as an outgrowth of the, 'special schools,' for the blind whose curricula concentrated on the provision of simple forms of vocational training in limited and manual skills such as knitting, weaving, chair caning as well as music and other arts. At first it was hoped by educators that people who were blind, with appropriate instruction, would be able to maintain themselves free of charge from their friends or the state. Sadly; however, nothing had been done to persuade society of the capacities of the blind trainees and before long graduates started returning, representing the embarrassment of their condition abroad and soliciting employment. Due to this the sheltered workshops as segregated places of permanent employment for people regarded by society as being, 'unemployable,' were begun.

The term refers to an organization or environment that employs people with disabilities separately from others. The term 'sheltered workshop' is considered outdated in the U.K. and the U.S., and increasingly in Australia. In the U.S., both the term "sheltered workshop" and its replacement term, "work center," are used by the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor to refer to entities that are authorized to employ workers with disabilities at sub-minimum wages. The term has generally been used to describe facilities that employ people with disabilities exclusively or primarily. U.S. public policy at the Federal level has shifted away from sheltered workshops in favor of administering services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of individuals with disabilities. The most integrated setting is one that enables individuals with disabilities to interact with non-disabled persons to the fullest extent possible.

While sheltered workshops emerged a century ago, their ancestry can be traced to at least the Middle Ages. It is possible to distinguish four separate historical associations from with workshops today derive, those of the:

Chart showing where today's sheltered workshops are derived from
Chart showing where today's sheltered workshops are derived from

Since the traces of this extensive heritage may still be seen in a number of sheltered workshops today, it is helpful to briefly examine the sources and character of these influences.

The oldest influence is the one that had its origin in religious protection of people with disabilities. Since the church was the first charitable organization, inevitably some lines of the workshop movement have strong ties to religion. When the physically disabled, 'indigent,' and those who were mentally different were herded into asylums in the 1700's, they were being brought together not to ameliorate their conditions, but simply to get them off of the streets. A main concern of the church for its wards with disabilities was that their souls and bodies in relation to moral uplift and spiritual redemption more than with vocational rehabilitation and physical restoration.

Among a number of privately operated workshops these remain the main goals of workshop activity. One organization sponsors dozens of workshops. Goodwill industries may be the most successful of all the mission or church-sponsored workshop chains.

A corollary line of development from which the current workshop has emerged is that of the medieval and early modern hospital which, like the asylum, was usually under church auspices, yet might be distinguished in terms of its specific function. European hospitals of the early 16th century were described by one observer as, 'those places where the sick are fed and cared for, where a certain number of paupers are supported, where boys and girls are reared, where abandoned infants are nourished, where the insane are confined, and where the blind dwell.'

The purpose of the hospital was mainly to care for those who were sick or completely disabled, yet in the bedlam created by its population there were also the rudiments of nursery, school, almshouse and insane asylum. Present-day workshops that incorporate the provision of medical and therapeutic services might be perceived as the outcome of a line of development reaching back to the medieval hospital and extending through the American county hospitals of more recent times, institutions which also desired to fulfill the double function of healing the ill and employment of the disabled.

Another notable precursor of the sheltered workshop was the workhouse or almshouse, which evolved as an institution of work relief accompanying the, 'Poor Laws,' of the 16th and 17th centuries. In relation to the present, the main importance of the workhouse was that it was designed not primarily for the sick or disabled, but for the poor who were able-bodied. The workhouse provided an institutionalized form of relief for the poor, in keeping with Elizabethan assumptions of the charterological causes of poverty it was made as disagreeable as possible and its wages held to a bare minimum above starvation so few would willingly pursue admission or remain. The gospel of work as the means of salvation essentially converted the almshouse into a forced-labor camp. The distinction between workhouse and jail house was many times hard to discern.

Sheltered workshops grew up as adjuncts of the special schools for the blind established in the 19th century. It is significant that these schools soon deliberately cut their connection with the shops they had created as it became apparent that the functions of education and employment could not reasonably be mixed in the same program. After this, the workshops became operated independently of custodial and educational institutions.

The historical development of modern welfare philosophy has been one of increasing recognition of the needed distinctions and incompatibilities among these emphases and approaches to the issue of disability. Some among them, notably that of the workhouse and almshouse, and potentially also to some extent that of the religious mission, have come to be recognized as anachronisms. Others, such as the vocational training emphasis of the early schools and the sheltered work conception, still retain some level of support in welfare theory and policy.

Yet it is clear that the direction of progress has been entirely away from the primitive idea of an encompassing bedlam in which all of those who are ill or disabled, rejected or despised members of society, would not be thrown together and in which the various and dissimilar functions of the school, church, factory, hospital and prison would be carried on. What remains to be seen is whether the statutes of the states governing their publicly operated sheltered workshops have kept pace with the direction of progress. The most notable recent battle has to do with wages paid to those who labor in sheltered workshops.

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Cite Page: Journal: Disabled World. Language: English (U.S.). Author: Thomas C. Weiss. Electronic Publication Date: 2014-02-18. Last Revised Date: 2017-06-28. Reference Title: Sheltered Workshops: History and Definition, Source: <a href=>Sheltered Workshops: History and Definition</a>. Abstract: Information and history of the term sheltered workshop in relation to disabilities. Retrieved 2021-03-01, from - Reference Category Number: DW#66-10109.