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Employment: Sheltered Workshops
Since historically blind persons were considered unemployable in the general workforce, early efforts to make them productive members of society led to the development of “sheltered workshops” in the 1840s. Sheltered workshops were separate occupation-oriented facilities where the blind could “earn a living.” The intent of these facilities was to “foster a sense of self-respect and self-reliance in the blind workers, not to provide a profit for the institutions” that operated them (Fleischer and Zames, p 19-20). Brooms, mops, and office supplies were commonly manufactured items. The 1938 Wagner-O'Day Act required the federal government to purchase certain items from these workshops. The National Industries for the Blind was formed shortly after the passage of that Act. This organization sought to coordinate and market products made by the blind to federal agencies. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, also passed in 1938, established a national minimum wage, instituted pay for overtime, and regulated the employment of minors. However, Section 14c of the Act exempted workshops managers from paying minimum wage as workers employed there were considered “substandard,” maintaining low productivity due to their disability. When first enacted, no wage floor was defined. Managers could decide on the rate of pay for disabled workers.
Sheltered workshops were a mainstay of vocational placement by state agencies for the blind for many years. As reported in the June 1960 issue of the Braille Monitor, 85 of the 100 workshops employing blind individuals had minimum wage exemptions, with average wages of 53 cents per hour and as low as 10 cent per hour, well below the prevailing wages of the day. While these workshops provided a means for some blind persons to earn a living, critics argued that sheltered workshops isolated and exploited workers by paying low wages and kept them from being integrated into society.
Sheltered Workshops in Iowa
"It is generally quite conceded that only twenty-five percent of all blind persons are actually employable and that only half of that number are employable outside a subsidized workshop." - 1954 Iowa Commission for the Blind Annual Report (p. 13)
Limited information is available about these sheltered workshop settings in Iowa. The Industrial Home of the Blind in Knoxville was an early form of the sheltered workshop. As indicated in the quote above, it wasn't too long ago that the state agency in Iowa charged with helping blind people work believed that most of them could not work at all; and of those who could, only a small percentage would be able to find some work outside of a sheltered workshop. Two mandated requirements for the Iowa Commission for the Blind when it was formed in 1925 was to market and sell products made by the blind and to provide trainings at workshops. It would not be until the late 1950s and 1960s that the agency's mission changed so that training blind Iowans in alternative skills and assisting them in training for, or obtaining, jobs that appealed to their interests or abilities would become its primary focus.
For many years, the Commission's vocational activities focused on providing tools and supplies necessary so that individuals could make products in their own homes rather than in centralized sheltered workshops. They contracted with a private company (Midwest Blind Products Company and later the Iowa Blind Products Company) to sell the products. The Commission's Home Industries program was also an important component of their employment activities, especially for women. (Like the sheltered workshops, the Commissioners noted in the April 8, 1942 minutes that the Home work does not come under wage and hour law when carried on by a state organization.) The Commission's emphasis on home production rather than cultivating sheltered shops may have been because the rural nature of Iowa and its small population did not lend itself to the establishment of larger workshops.
Workshops were not unknown to the Commission. The first mention of a workshop in Iowa was at the April 20, 1926 board meeting where the minutes note that the Executive Secretary, Ethel Holmes, was authorized to pay men in a Sioux City broom shop $5 per week for one month, and longer if necessary. She was also authorized to hire a broom making teacher at $35.00 for three month’s trial.
The next mention comes during the January 15, 1931 board meeting which notes: "The condition of the Sioux City shop (to the supervisor of which Mrs. Deuel, we have been paying $100 a month since March, 1930) was discussed. Mrs. Holmes was told to consult with Mrs. Deuel to see if she can give certain hours a day for $35 a month, as we are not quite ready to discontinue it, feeling this winter has not been a fair test. Mrs. Deuel is to concern herself about the shop as Mrs. Lathem is the home teacher." No mention of the number of blind workers or their pay was made nor were details regarding the condition of the shop provided.
The Sioux City shop was mentioned again in the June 2, 1938 board meeting minutes where it is noted that during the informal discussion that "Mrs. Sebern and Mr. Laustrup (Commissioners) talked over the shop in Sioux City and decided it would be wise to tell Mrs. Deuel that after July 1, she would be discontinued." The fate of the Sioux City shop is uncertain. It was mentioned again in the April 3, 1956 minutes in a discussion about the selling of products in the Sioux City area and issues with finding individuals to make the products.
In 1939, several blind men, led by William Wurts, in Des Moines made an effort to set up a broom making workshop. Mr.Wurts was successful in getting the legislature to appropriate $5,000 for each year between 1939 - 1943 to the Commission to pay for the establishment of such a workshop. The Commission was not involved in this legislative activity, did not find the amount adequate to start a workshop, and believed that such a shop would need to be subsidized in order to be operational. Eventually, they were able to use the special appropriation to fund training activities related to making products at home or in their local community. (Read the minutes related to this workshop activity.)
The topic of sheltered work resurfaced in December 1959. Mrs. Holmes reported to the Commissioners on the establishment of a new Goodwill Industries in Des Moines which was to give employment to blind men. In April 1956, it was noted that that Goodwill Industries had employed seven blind men on a sub-contract and were securing another.
Sheltered workshops continue to exist in Iowa for persons with severe disabilities. Disability and vocational advocates continue to argue the pros and cons of these employment settings. Over time, as blind Iowans gained skills and confidence in their abilities, fewer and fewer have sought work in sheltered workshops, preferring to work alongside their sighted peers for competitive wages.
Fleischer, Doris Zames and Frieda Zames. The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Philadelphia, PA. Temple University Press, 2001.
Whittaker, William G., “Treatment of Workers with Disabilities under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act,” Federal Publications. Congressional Research Services Report for Congress: Paper 209 (February 9, 2005)
Iowa Commission for the Blind Board Meeting Minutes 1925 - 1958. The relationship between the Commission and the Iowa Blind Products company is covered over various years in the minutes. In 1956 discussion arose about the possibility of the Minnesota Society for the Blind, a subsidiary of the National Industries for the Blind, purchasing the Iowa Blind Products company. The board meeting minutes are a part of the Iowa Blind History archive at the Iowa Department for the Blind.