Special Education

Justice Department Settles With Rhode Island Over Disabilities Complaint

By Christina A. Samuels — April 09, 2014 2 min read
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High school students in Rhode Island with intellectual and developmental disabilities will be offered transition services—including internships and job site visits—with the goal of getting them competitive jobs in the community, as part of a settlement announced April 8 between the state and the federal government.

The 10-year agreement also comes with provisions for adults with disabilities: Rhode Island has agreed to shift funding currently used to support segregated settings over to services that will place people with disabilities in mainstream educational, leisure, and volunteer activities. The state will also provide “supported employment placements” in typical community-based jobs that pay at least minimum wage.

This consent decree, which the U.S. Department of Justice says is its first agreement with a state as a whole, will make Rhode Island “a national leader in the movement to bring people with disabilities out of segregated work settings and into typical jobs in the community at competitive pay,” said a statement by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jocelyn Samuels.

This agreement was spurred by an investigation of potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act that started back in January 2013. In June 2013, the federal government entered into an agreement with Providence, part of which required the city to improve services for students with intellectual disabilities in its 23,000-student school district. Before the agreement was reached, students with intellectual disabilities had been placed in a segregated environment at the district’s Harold A. Birch Vocational School, a separate wing of Mount Pleasant High School. Those students almost invariably ended up at sheltered workshops after graduation, performing light manufacturing tasks for far less than minimum wage. The school has since been renamed Birch Academy at Mount Pleasant, and students have been integrated into some regular classes.

After that agreement with Providence, the federal investigation continued, and the Justice Department found that the state overall was relying too much on segregated settings for people with intellectual disabilities. These people were earning an average of $2.21 an hour, and sometimes stayed in their segregated workshops for decades, the investigation found.

Prompted by the investigation, Rhode Island had already moved to make some changes to its state-funded employment and support system. The Justice Department, using first names only, outlined some of the impact of those changes for particular workers with disabilities:

Pedro, an individual who transitioned from the in-school sheltered workshop to the adult workshop, where he earned just 48 cents an hour, is now making minimum wage working at a restaurant. Peter, another former sheltered workshop employee who was earning approximately $1.50 per hour, now has a job earning more than minimum wage working for the state as a custodian at a hospital. Louis has gone from earning sub-minimum wages performing rote tasks at the sheltered workshop to a full-time position at a state hospital, where he uses his strong computer skills and passion for mathematics to generate Excel reports, record time sheets, and complete other office tasks.

The filing of the consent decree “is an opportunity to move forward,” said Peter F. Neronha, the United States attorney for Rhode Island, in a New York Times article on the agreement. “To recognize, finally, that we are better, stronger, when all of us—all of us—are interwoven into the fabric, that is Rhode Island.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.