The Right to a Real Job

Establishing Supported Employment in Indiana


Through video-recorded oral history interviews, this exhibit looks at the establishment of community-based employment for people with intellectual and other significant disabilities, from the beginnings of supported employment in Indiana during the 1980s, through the aftermath of its heyday in the following decade. It was a time when sheltered workshops were closing and disability service providers were transforming their way of thinking. “They were on fire,” recalled Connie Ferrell, “and at the time they were doing it, it was like heresy.”

A Legacy of Sheltered Work

In the 1950s, groups of parents were the first to establish sheltered workshops for adults with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD) in the U.S. With the goal of providing a protective, noncompetitive work environment, workshops later became one of the services offered by rehabilitation agencies serving newly deinstitutionalized residents. Largely segregated, sheltered workshops paid subminimum wages.

These facilities were seen as a first step in preparing clients to obtain competitive employment. By the end of the 1980s however, data were available that revealed actual outcomes. For most individuals, employment at a sheltered workshop did not lead to a job in the general labor market. Melody Cooper recalls the workshop she attended as “a place there for people to do work, give them a couple of dollars, but that wasn't me.”

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In the 1970s, Bettye Dunham interviewed hundreds of residents of Muscatatuck State Hospital and Training Center for jobs at the new Jennings Training Center. The Center provided a bus that picked up workers in the morning and took them back to the institution at night. Bettye Dunham clip >


Starting in 1984, the Indiana Governor’s Council for People with Disabilities convened statewide and regional conferences to create excitement about supported employment, then sponsored pilot projects to implement supported employment practices. "The Supported Employment Movement">


Community Mental Health Centers, which emerged out of state hospital closures, also began to provide employment services. Kathy Christoff recalled how employers became advocates for supported employment. “Once they've had that great experience, they usually are incredibly happily surprised and committed to that individual and anyone with a mental illness.” "Changes in Mental Health Services">

A Legacy of Sheltered Work