For the last 14 years, Brenda Sundbakken has been doing what the state of Wisconsin believes to be the model for employment of individuals with mental disabilities. Sundbakken works two days a week doing data entry at the city of Madison Assessor's Office.
She works side-by-side with other city workers.
“She’s a good worker. She’s very dedicated and she rarely takes a day off and she just brightens our day when she comes in,” says Sally Sweeney, assessments services supervisor.
Sundbakken was placed in the job by Community Work Services Inc., a private, nonprofit organization that has been placing disabled workers in employment positions for 30 years.
The executive director of that organization, Sarah Cutler says placing individuals in an integrated work environment gives them a chance to be part of the community.
“It brings them a sense of belonging. They feel like they have friends, that they work and they have a job that they need to do and they know that they are making a difference,” says Cutler.
The organization is symbolic of the direction the state of Wisconsin wants sheltered workshops to move in during the next five years.
“Public policy has shifted to really reflect that people with disabilities should be able to live, work and make choices about their lives just like people without disabilities,” says Tami Jackson, policy director for the Wisconsin Board for People with Disabilities.
The policy shift is a result of a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Olmstead decision. That ruling requires public agencies to provide services “in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.”
The state of Wisconsin is giving sheltered workshops five years to come into compliance with that ruling or face loss of Medicaid funding.
“Nobody is going to lose their services. This rule does not force any workshop to shut their doors. The rule says you may need to do your business differently,” says Jackson.
The Wisconsin Board for People with Disabilities point to the successes of job placement organizations in Dane County as proof the change will work.
“In Dane County over the past 20 years, we’ve really transitioned away from the sheltered workshop model to a lot of community-based employment models, and it has the highest employment rate for people with disabilities, even the most severe disabilities in the state. We have an 80% community integration employment rate in Dane County,” says Jackson.
Advocates for a shift to integrated community employment also say many sheltered workshops pay employees less than minimum wage.
That is permitted under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but those advocates say in the integrated community they are seeing disabled workers paid the minimum wage and above.
Some operators of sheltered workshops and their clients fear the change will leave them without a job, but after 30 years of successfully placing individuals in the workplace, Cutler believes the new model works.
“We have found that if they can work in workshops they can work in the community. We work with over 90 employers and we have 82 clients and structure their schedule in such a way it makes it possible for them to work in the community,” says Cutler.
While organizations like Community Work Services Inc. are in place in Dane County, similar organizations do not exist throughout the state.
Jackson admits that a lot of work must be done in the next five years to develop similar organizations throughout the state to ensure opportunities exist for everyone.