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Mentally Disabled Students Forced Into Labor At Rhode Island School

By Kirsten Gibson, Guest Contributor  

"Mentally Disabled Students Forced Into Labor At Rhode Island School"

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Credit: WPRI News

A Providence, Rhode Island school geared toward the mentally disabled has allegedly forced students into manual labor for either little or no pay, violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to the Department of Justice. The school also transferred students to a similar program once they graduated without the option of integrated employment.

The school, Harold A. Birch Vocational School, operated a workshop that contracted work for the disabled students, segregating them from other students. The Justice Department released a letter on June 7 detailing the conditions the students were subjected to, according to WPRI News:

“Birch obtains contracts with private businesses to perform work, such as bagging, labeling, collating, and assembling jewelry,” the letter stated. “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 were paid “subminimum or no wages” for their labor, according to the Justice Department report. The investigation found that students who were paid made between 50 cents and $2 an hour and sometimes worked weekends.

Once students graduated, they were given two options for employment, one of which was a program similar to the school’s workshop that offered “light assembling, sorting, various piecework tasks” and other services for companies. Students were placed in the program even though some had requested to work in a more integrated setting. The program similarly segregates them from other workers and pays them “extremely low” wages, according to the Justice Department’s report.

Workers at the adult program experienced fixed schedules and routines without the ability to opt out. Additionally, they were not allowed to interact with staff that did not have disabilities and did not have personal or private space.

The mayor of Providence, Angel Taveras, said he was first aware of the program when the Department of Justice began investigations in January. The school has since ceased the program.

Larry Roberti, principal at the Harold H. Birch Vocational School, resigned Monday after the allegations broke. The Providence school board, however, had scheduled a meeting in April to consider firing Roberti. He was ultimately not fired after city and school officials came to his defense.

Unfortunately, these students are not alone in being exploited for manual labor. On May 1, a federal judge ruled that a Texas company must pay $240 million to 32 disabled workers for neglect and abuse. Workers were both physically and mentally abused for over 40 years at the company and housed in squalor conditions.

Kirsten Gibson is an intern at ThinkProgress.

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