MALDEN — After he graduated from high school, Jack Barry took a job alongside more than 100 other workers with disabilities, making a few dollars an hour in a warehouse putting together shoeshine kits and tie racks. Today Barry, 34, who was born with spina bifida and gets around in a wheelchair, makes $10 an hour working with kids in a cheery light-filled room at the YMCA.
The assembly line where Barry once worked is no more, phased out as part of a nationwide push to do away with segregated work centers, known as sheltered workshops, that once employed hundreds of thousands of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities making less than minimum wage. Triangle Inc., the Malden disabilities services provider that until recently housed the largest such center in the state, has closed its in-house worksite and now places people only in jobs in the community, where they work side by side with other employees.
This summer, the 45-year-old nonprofit will surrender its federal and state certifications that allow it to pay workers with disabilities less than minimum wage.
“It’s a human rights issue,” said Coleman Nee, chief executive of Triangle, who was the state’s Secretary of Veterans’ Services during the Deval Patrick administration. “Everybody has the ability to be competitively placed if that’s what they want, regardless of the nature of their disability and how much work it might take to get them there.”
Slightly more than one in four working-age people with disabilities is employed, according to the Department of Labor. But the movement to get more of them into the workforce is growing, part of a shift toward inclusion and self-advocacy by people with disabilities, said Margaret Van Gelder, director of employment and family support at the state’s Department of Developmental Services.
“They’re coming into their own, speaking up for themselves, pushing for opportunities they want,” she said.
A decade ago, about 6,000 people with disabilities toiled in 90 such sheltered workshops in Massachusetts, according to the state. In response to federal policy changes, the agency unveiled a plan two years ago to close all such workshops and get everyone into day programs or jobs in the community, a goal it says it will hit by the end of June.
Nationwide, the number of sheltered workshops with sub-minimum-wage certification has dropped by almost half since 2001, from 4,724 to 2,417, according to the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Recent federal lawsuits over sheltered workshops in Oregon and Rhode Island accused the states of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Rhode Island is facing a $1 million annual fine for not taking steps to move people out of these workshops.
At Triangle, save for a few temporary workers completing a final Comcast contract to sort electrical cords and power packs, making minimum wage, the once-bustling workshop is now empty. In the past five years, Triangle has placed workers in 700 jobs around the region, many of whom in the past would have worked at the center indefinitely.
These workers aren’t just filling the first job that comes along, though. The staff works with them to figure out what they want to do and how they can get there, including training, volunteering, and internships to build their résumés. Some workers begin in group employment situations, working with a job coach at electronics recycling centers or microchip manufacturers before moving on to independent jobs.
People with disabilities benefit from regular employment not only because they can make competitive wages and gain a sense of dignity, but because it helps them develop socially, said Jeff Gentry, director of youth services and community relations at Triangle.
Gentry recalls a time he overheard a man with serious social and emotional limitations, who had begun working at the Talbots distribution center in Lakeville, tell a co-worker, “Thank you for accepting my Facebook friend request.”
“I about hit the floor,” Gentry said. “Those skills were never going to come out in a classroom, because there’s some parts of our life that don’t happen in those antiseptic environments. The community is the classroom.”
Jesse Lamb, an 18-year-old with a learning disability, works as a bagger at Market Basket in Woburn. But at Triangle, he’s preparing to take a food-safety certification class at Bunker Hill Community College so he can work in the grocery store’s kitchen. One day, he dreams of opening his own restaurant.
Nick Wells, 24, who has autism, used to work in the Triangle workshop but “got bored of it very easily.” After an employment tour to Cataldo Ambulance Service in Chelsea, Wells set his sights on working there, and now he takes the T and a bus from Malden to Chelsea five mornings a week to wash and polish the ambulances.
Businesses stand to gain too, Gentry noted. Having a more diverse workforce that reflects the demographics of their customers can increase companies’ market share, as well as their appeal to employees.
They are also gaining hard workers.
Ann Carozza, staff development director at the Malden YMCA, said the people hired through Triangle go above and beyond. “They are exemplary employees,” she said. “They’re never late and they never call in sick.”
One of those employees is Jack Barry, who loves his work, as well as shattering stereotypes about people with disabilities. His presence shows the kids something important, he said: “Even though you’re in a wheelchair, you can still do something with your life.”