At the Philadelphia Inquirer, Ronnie Polaneczky has a series titled "Falling off the Cliff." Part 2 examines direct-support professionals. Part 3 looks at the employment challenges facing disabled people such as an autistic young adult named Eric Heppard. His parents needed him to take an IQ test to qualify for a Medicaid waiver. He scored 81, higher than they expected. That was bad news.
The old rule of thumb said that an IQ higher than 70 made a candidate with an I/DD ineligible for sheltered work in Pennsylvania. But in the last decade or so, there has been a slow shift to a holistic view of candidates — though a handful of states, including
Pennsylvania, have been slow to embrace it, says Celia Feinstein.
"Other states have moved to a more functional definition of developmental disability," says Feinstein, executive director of Temple University's Institute on Disabilities. "For example, you may have an IQ of 90, but if you need support with your activities of daily living, you're probably as disabled as someone whose IQ is 68."
Three years ago, that broad interpretation wasn't made in Pennsylvania, which proved to be Eric's undoing: testing showed that his high IQ rendered him ineligible for the APS program. [Associated Production Services, which runs sheltered workshops] Basically, he was not disabled enough to meet hiring and program criteria for sheltered employment.
"The job fell through our fingers like sand," says Lisa, still sounding shocked. "Everyone said their hands were tied. Eric was devastated."
There's a national effort to phase out sheltered workshops — like those run by APS, where Eric had hoped to work — because the disabled people they employ are just as segregated from the greater community as disabled people once were in residential institutions. There's even a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the 1999 Olmstead decision, that says that people with disabilities should work, live, and receive services in the most integrated setting possible.
That's caused a shrinkage in the number of United States sheltered workshops from 3,350 in 2010 to 2,638 in 2016. Currently, about 369,700 disabled adults are employed in sheltered settings, according to the Department of Labor.
While many adults with I/DD, such as Michael Urtz and Julia Tyler, may be thriving in their community-based jobs, such arrangements don't work for everyone, say advocates for adults for whom sheltered work has been a godsend. Their children feel safe from bullying, receive special services and enjoy kinship with coworkers who are similarly disabled.