To read on The Star Tribune website:
Inclusion pays off
Today many disabled Vermont residents are thriving in the community – and the state is saving money.
In the basement kitchen of a stone church nestled in the Green Mountains, Rachel Wollum studied her reflection in an oven window, adjusting her auburn hair and orange polka-dot dress until they were just right.
Satisfied with her appearance, Wollum, who is 26 and has Down syndrome, carefully poured four trays of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies into bags bearing her name. Then, with the intensity of a drama student, she rehearsed lines familiar to almost every store clerk in Middlebury, where “Rachel’s Cookies” are now a household name.
“Hi, my name is Rachel, any cookies today?” she said. “Great, thank you so much for serving my cookies. Have a beautiful day! You’re welcome!”
With her zest and ambition, Wollum personifies the remarkable strategy that has made Vermont a leader in the civil rights movement for adults with disabilities. If she lived in Minnesota, Wollum might have been steered into a sheltered workshop or mobile cleaning crew, where thousands of disabled adults perform mundane tasks and have little or no contact with the broader community.
But here, in this state of hardscrabble hillside farms and country roads lined with sugar maples, sheltered workshops are a thing of the past. Disabled adults are expected to take their place each day alongside other working people. In the 16 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered states to end the segregation of people with disabilities, few states have carried the flag as boldly as Vermont.
“The days of hiding people away in closeted boxes where you could no longer see them or think about them — those days are over here,” said Pauline O’Brien, 80, whose cognitively impaired son, Sean, worked at a sheltered workshop for 23 years. “And we’re never going back.”
In 2002, Vermont became the first state to stop funding sheltered workshops. The state also ended the practice, still common in other states, of using Medicaid to subsidize group homes for people with disabilities.
Instead, the state sends money directly to disabled clients for services of their choosing, such as job coaching and transportation.
Today, Vermont leads the nation in almost every measure of workplace inclusion. Vermonters with intellectual disabilities are twice as likely to find jobs in the community as their counterparts in other states. Nearly 40 percent work in the community alongside people without disabilities, compared with 13 percent in Minnesota.
“In Vermont, they imagined a system focused on the empowerment of individuals, rather than institutions, and they achieved it,” said John Butterworth, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion at the University of Massachusetts, a research center on developmental disabilities. “They proved it can be done.”
A shameful history
When Bill Villemaire looks back on the 36 years he spent toiling in a sheltered workshop in the town of Colchester, he remembers the daily ringing of the cowbell.
Each morning it signaled the huddled crowd of developmentally disabled workers that it was time to march downstairs to the assembly line. There, Villemaire would spend hours in a windowless basement, performing rote tasks such as inserting wires into air ducts, until the cowbell rang to mark the end of his shift. He made as little as $2 a day.
“I wanted to destroy that cowbell,” said Villemaire, 59, who now makes $10 an hour stocking shelves in a neighborhood grocery store. “They treated us like animals. … It was soul-draining.”
Though famous for maple syrup, Ben & Jerry’s and picturesque ski resorts, Vermont has a long, dark history of segregation and abuse of people with disabilities. Memories of that era still hang like a shadow over those who experienced it.
As recently as the late 1980s, Vermont housed more than 500 people with disabilities at a sprawling west Vermont campus once known as the Brandon Training School. Here, in brick buildings where weeds now curl out of shattered windows, so-called “mentally deficient” adults were often beaten and tied down with restraints.
A lawsuit filed by one of the residents, Robert Brace, coupled with public outrage, led to the facility’s closure in 1993 and marked the beginning of Vermont’s revolution.
More than two decades later, Brace, now 55, struggles to contain his anxiety as he recalls his 17 years at Brandon Training School. His fingers twitched and his eyes glanced nervously at the ceiling as he recounted being placed in a straitjacket and given shots of psychotropic drugs when he “acted out.” To ease his anxieties, a therapist gently touched Brace on his hands, arms and face — a therapy known as “tapping” — while speaking soothing words.
“Robert, you’re OK now, you’re safe,” said his therapist, Al Vecchione. “Don’t worry. You’re never going back to that horrible place.”
The effort to close sheltered workshops met stiff resistance, largely from parents who feared their children would be stuck at home, idle and bored. That group included Dottie Fullem, 89, who was among a handful of parents who founded a workshop known as Champlain Industries with the best of intentions.