Early History

Fort Wayne State School

Indiana’s first constitution (1816) specifically mentions employment as contributing to the “usefulness” of persons with infirmities who were to be cared for in asylums provided by the state. Until well past the middle of the 20th century, residents of Indiana’s institutions worked without pay to keep them operational, in agriculture, dietary kitchens, housekeeping, even in care of other residents.

The First Annual Report of the Indiana Farm Colony for the Feeble-Minded (1920) admonishes that 'Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do,' and that “the labor of these simple people” keeps them busy. The report lists foodstuffs such as garden produce and other crops, orchard fruit, meat, eggs, and dairy products produced by the Colony in Butlerville during its first year as valuing close to $9,000 -- $115,000 in today’s dollars.

Some of the first workshops offering employment outside of institutions were created for individuals with visual impairments. In 1900, the Indiana Industrial Home for Blind Men in Indianapolis employed its first workers making brooms at an average of $5.10 per week. By 1905, this private enterprise reported, "We are constantly receiving many requests from both married and single men, ranging in age from 25 to 50, and over, who have lost their sight mostly by accident, and who are unable to maintain themselves while learning a trade."

068-si_ Man_with_a_Guide_Dog.jpg
Man with a Guide Dog, 1940 Martin Collection, Indiana Historical Society

During the 1930s and 40s, workshops became available to people who had been physically disabled by industrial accidents or military service. The 1938 U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act established a minimum wage but, as a legacy of the Great Depression, allowed workshops to pay wages below that amount.