Hidden from View: Disability, Segregation and Work


Hidden from View: Disability, Segregation and Work


Winifred Poster, Marion Crain & Miriam A. Cherry



A central goal of the disability rights movement is to enable people with disabilities to fully participate in society and to live complete, independent, and engaged lives. Employment is considered central to this vision and has long been intertwined with ideas of equality and citizenship in the disability rights movement. However, too often people with disabilities are unseen, unwelcome, or simply not present in the traditional workplace.

The employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12101) (ADA) were intended to bring working-age people with disabilities into the workplace by providing options for them to seek and gain meaningful, integrated employment. Although the ADA has made significant gains, the rate of progress in employment has been disappointing. For example, in 2012, only 32.7 percent of working-age adults with disabilities were employed, as compared with 73.6 percent of working-age adults without disabilities who were (Institute on Disability 2013). While the lack of progress of people with disabilities in the traditional workplace has received attention, the work done by many, especially those with severe disabilities in segregated workplaces, remains hidden in sheltered workshops.

Sheltered workshops are commonly defined as supervised, segregated workplaces for disabled adults and primarily for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. According to a 2001 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, more than 400,000 people with disabilities are working in sheltered workshops across the country (GAO 2001). The work activities in sheltered workshops typically consist of simple assembly processes performed by hand. Examples include assembling small parts, hand-packaging items, packing or unpacking items, folding, sorting, and collating (pp. 10–12). Sheltered workshops are relatively small settings, each employing an average of eighty-six workers with disabilities, and primarily populated by people with disabilities (p. 10). Sheltered workshops may also include support services such as close supervision, job coaching, and life skills training (p. 13). Sheltered workshops are often characterized as job training programs, but many of them function as long-term and isolating alternatives to competitive employment. Although the invisibility of people with disabilities because of these sheltered workshops may appear to be a dramatic example, it shares similarities with other ways in which such individuals are unseen or simply not present in the traditional workplace. Indeed, there are several gaps or areas of conflict in ADA implementation that operate to obscure, exclude, or divert workers with disabilities from the traditional workplace.

This chapter explores the intersection of the concepts of disability, invisibility, and work and identifies the ways in which different and conflicting social and legal constructions of disability perpetuate the segregation and invisibility of people with disabilities in the workplace.

Title of Book

Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World



Publication Date


Document Type



University of California Press


Disability Law | Labor and Employment Law

Hidden from View: Disability, Segregation and Work

Catalog Record