What is a Sheltered Workshop?

Mary McMahon

A sheltered workshop is a workplace which provides employment to people with disabilities, people re-entering the workforce after an extended period out of it, and other individuals who can benefit from a protective and supportive work environment. In a sheltered workshop, people perform a variety of tasks, and are provided with work experience, the opportunity to socialize with peers, on the job training, and other benefits. Sheltered workshops can be found all over the world, offering services and products ranging from furniture repair to landscaping.

Services offered by sheltered workshops may include furniture repair.
Services offered by sheltered workshops may include furniture repair.

The term “sheltered workshop” is viewed as outdated by some advocates for people with disabilities. Some prefer to use the term “social enterprise.” Social enterprises often have a broader spectrum of activities than traditional sheltered workshops, and they lack the problematic associations which some people have with the idea of a sheltered workshop.

Sheltered workshops provide employment to people with disabilities.
Sheltered workshops provide employment to people with disabilities.

There are a number of goals to a sheltered workshop. One is to provide people with disabilities with meaningful employment when they cannot find employment in other settings. Meaningful employment improves quality of life, teaches valuable skills, and promotes independence. Historically, independence has been a major issue for many people with disabilities, making it an especially valuable component of a sheltered workshop's programs.

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Employees at a sheltered workshop also enjoy the independence which comes with a paycheck. For family members caring for people with disabilities, sheltered workshops are also an excellent form of respite care, allowing family members to get some rest while being assured that their loved ones are in a safe place, with people who are care for them. The ability to socialize is also valuable, as some people with disabilities live very isolated lives as a result of inaccessibility and other issues.

Problems with sheltered workshops include the fact that the pay is often low, that there are limited opportunities for advancement, and that employees do not necessarily branch out into the workplace at large. Some advocates would prefer to see people with disabilities welcomed in conventional working environments, rather than isolated to sheltered workshops. Sheltered workshops may also be unable or unwilling to work with people who have disabilities which make conventional tasks challenging, despite the fact that these people are probably most in need of support in a welcoming environment. Instead, they may focus on people with mild disabilities, as these people may require less monitoring, support, and training. Studies have shown, however, that people with severe disabilities can actually do very well in the workplace, if given a chance to do so.

Sheltered workshops can help people to get back in the workforce after a long absence.
Sheltered workshops can help people to get back in the workforce after a long absence.

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Discussion Comments


@Markerrag -- That "society benefiting" part is particularly important and that is exactly why companies in the United States receive certain tax benefits when they hire people with disabilities.

Once again, the government has engaged in a bit of social engineering with the tax code. That is usually a terrible way to change society, but it works quite well when it comes to giving employers incentives to hire people with disabilities.


Interesting how some people get offended at the phrase "sheltered workshop." It is better for society as a whole for us not to get hung up on what something is called and focus on what it does. In the grand scheme of things, sheltered workshop, social enterprise or whatever else you want to call it is a pretty good idea that benefits everyone. People who work in them get some life skills and society benefits by having another productive member of society.

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