Sick: Rhode Island Vocational School Pushed Disabled Students into Sweatshop Labor

A vocational school in Providence, Rhode Island is under scrutiny for singling out disabled students for labor in what pretty much sounds like a sweatshop. A Department of Justice investigation found that the Harold H. Birch Vocational School violated  the Americans with Disabilities Act for years as it  shoveled -- and segregated -- students with special needs into “sheltered workshops.” Things didn’t get better once they graduated. Rather, they school was a pipeline to push disabled students into a similarly exploitative program, Target 12 (WRPI) reports.

The Justice Department investigated the school and sent a letter detailing their findings this week, including that “Birch obtains contracts with private businesses to perform work, such as bagging, labeling, collating, and assembling jewelry,” and "One former student stated that she was required to spend a much greater portion of her school day in the workshop, including full days, when the workshop had important production deadlines."

Students received "subminimum or no wages" -- between 50 cents and $2 an hour for their labor (which even included weekend work) --  the report said. They DOJ's Civil Rights Division says students with disabilities performing tasks similar to peers who received “subminimum” wages received nothing at all, even though they “demonstrated very few differences in ability from the students who were paid subminimum wages.”

"Other than the in-school sheltered workshop, the nearest experience that some Birch students are offered to a transition work placement is assisting the Mt. Pleasant High School cafeteria staff with emptying the school's trash," the report said.

WPRI explained the school's role as a stepping stone to more unpaid labor:

The investigation also found Birch students - ages 14 to 21 - were given few choices if they wanted to work after leaving Birch. One of two options was to continue in a sheltered workshop at the Training Through Placement program (TTP) in North Providence, a state-monitored program for disabled adults. The TTP website says it can offer companies "light assembling, sorting, various piecework tasks" and other services.

The Justice Department investigation found the Birch school acted as a "feeder to TTP, [despite] some students' specific requests to work and receive services in more integrated settings."

"TTP is a segregated setting with many of the hallmarks of other segregated settings," the DOJ letter states, where "individuals are required to follow fixed, highly regimented schedules and routines; individuals with disabilities do not have private or personal space and are separated from spaces for managers and staff without disabilities; individuals exercise very limited choice over the activities that they engage in throughout the day."

Those working at TTP are paid "extremely low wages," according to the report.

The school board had been warned about issues in a 2011 report, and WPRI cites as another “red flag” conspiracy charges against the man who heads the non-profit TTP program.

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