Sheltered Workshops: Relic of the Past or Overlooked Option?

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Sheltered Workshops: Relic of the Past or Overlooked Option?


The 5 Stages is a resource developed by Elim Christian Services. Elim is a Christ-centered learning and sharing community dedicated to revealing the purpose and value of each person as a child of God.

Elim has been in ministry for almost 70 years. Among its services for persons living with disabilities is a comprehensive day program for adults with disabilities. Many people, upon visiting this program, are impressed by its commitment to the dignity and purpose of each person served here. In fact, just two years ago, Elim received a rare “Exemplary” rating from the Commission on the Accreditation of Rehabilitative Facilities (CARF), because of our innovative approach to equipping adults living with disabilities to “Make a Difference” in their community and for their neighbors.

Yet there exists a tension. When I read about disability services, or inclusion efforts, or when I attend workshops and conferences devoted to the disability issues that face our communities, I am often told that sheltered workshops are an unfortunate relic of antiquated thinking.

In many ways, these folks are right. And many of them may take a glance at Elm’s services for adults and conclude that this is yet another sheltered workshop, and even wonder how indeed we could ever hope to contribute to a discussion of best practices in disability services.

Brad Johnson, director of Elim’s Adult Services program, helped me understand this tension, and some of the nuances of the discussion that we often overlook, in his answers to the following questions:

Why is community integration so important to disability services organizations?

Elim emphasizes “community engagement” which measures the relationships that are developed in the community, not just the ratios of disabled to nondisabled.  Individuals who have developmental disabilities are like all of us, wanting to be loved and accepted by others.  Historically those who have disabilities have been isolated within their community.  Even under the label of community integration we have seen adults isolated not only from their community, but also their peers whose friendships they seek and cherish.  In our pursuit to integrate those with disabilities into their broader community we must be sure they develop relationships with their neighbors, coworkers, and peers that is consistent and ongoing.

What are the challenges with community integration?

Community integration often tends to assess a person’s quality of life by reducing their relationships with their disabled peers.  Placing an individual in a community, work environment, church, etc. that minimizes their contact with others with disabilities is often sufficient.  We often fail to assess how many meaningful social relationships are consistently maintained.  We can get caught up assessing quality of life as a numeric measure verses a true measure of an individual’s satisfaction with the relationships within one’s life.  Each person has individual needs and one standard measure will fail to truly measure quality of life.  Extroverts often enjoy many varied friendships.  Introverts cherish just a few intimate relationships.  Quality of life assumptions such as community integration need to be assessed by the individual’s needs and desires and not a one-size-fits-all mentality.

What is the focus of a program like Elim’s Adult Services?

At Elim, we have witnessed the tremendous impact that community service or volunteerism has made in the lives of the adults we serve as well as those in our community.  Many of our adults have found fulfillment and established numerous relationships with others in their community by volunteering at local non-profits and churches (through Elim’s “Making a Difference” program).  The adults grow in their esteem and self-worth by helping others in need and receiving gratitude and praise from those they serve.  In addition, people in our community are seeing the valuable contributions our adults are making to their community and overcoming barriers of fear that have created barriers to closer relationships. While community integration increased greater tolerance in the community, community engagement has increased greater acceptance.

Are there benefits to larger aggregate settings for individuals who have developmental disabilities?

When it comes to quality-of-life measures, peer relationships are extremely important to the adults we serve.  One of our biggest barriers to finding jobs for our adults in the community is loneliness.  Although co-workers may be nice to them and tolerate them, the intimacy associated with friendship seldom develops.  So after the excitement of having a new job wears off, an individual tends to lose interest and commitment to their job, so they can return to their friends.  Adults who have developmental disabilities enjoy the opportunity to socialize with numerous adults with similar disabilities, so that within their peer group they may find and develop long-lasting and intimate friendships.  In addition, there is a much greater sense of acceptance and appreciation among their peer group than in the broader population, though we hope that continued ‘community engagement’ will change that reality as well.

What are the benefits and shortcomings of a “least restrictive environment?”

We should always strive to help adults who have disabilities to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on others for their personal care, home-keeping, meal preparation, access to the community, ability to financially support one-self etc.  At the same time, we need to make sure we do not socially isolate a person by putting him or her in an environment that stifles their ability to maintain meaningful relationships.  Again the needs and desires of individuals who have disabilities are broad and diverse.  Measures to assess the least restrictive environment must be based on the personal needs and interests of the individual and not one set measure such as employed full time in the community and living in one’s own residence.  Often we take very good ideas and turn them into very narrow-minded standards.  As long as the least restrictive environment is personally tailored to the needs and desires of the individual in question, there can be great strides in increasing one’s quality of life!

What is the vision for Elim’s services for adults who live with developmental disabilities?

Elim desires to see adults who have developmental disabilities to be actively engaged in their communities.  We want communities to see and appreciate the many contributions individuals who have disabilities bring to our community.  Our vision is to have individuals working, playing, living, and serving in their community alongside their family, friends, and neighbors.  One great treasure I have found in adults who have disabilities is their great acceptance, appreciation, tolerance, love, and ability to forgive.  There is much the “non-disabled” community can learn from those who have developmental disabilities.

As always, Elim remains committed to the development and deployment of best practices in its services and opportunities to equip adults with disabilities. We believe this is best practiced not just in the pursuit of independence, capability, or even in financial success, but in relationships, in pursuing one’s purpose and calling, and in meaningful activities that build the Kingdom.

While we stand with those who question the legitimacy and wisdom of isolated sheltered workshops (through which many people have and continue to prosper on the backs of those living with disabilities), we also humbly suggest that the issue of community integration is a complicated one, and we cannot categorically dismiss peer-relationship community services as a viable and even desirable solution.

After all, it is the kind of thinking that Brad and his team employ at Elim’s Adult Services program that helped us build The 5 Stages in the first place.




danvp_avatarDan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.



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Local School Seeks Stage 5


We came across this entry from the annual report of Southwest Chicago Christian Schools, a sister school to Elim that serves students from Preschool through 12th grade. The following excerpt from their annual report was provided by their Oak Lawn campus (PreK-8).

Being Co-Laborers in God’s Kingdom

In February, the students participated in a service project
called HOPE Packs in partnership with Elim Christian
 Services. Students donated school supplies that were then
assembled into packages by the adult clients at Elim to be
shipped around the world for children who cannot afford
school supplies.

Eleven students from grades 5-8 visited Elim
and were able to serve next to the adult clients to assist in the
assembling of the Packs. Here are our students’ thoughts
from the project:

  • “You might have your ups and downs, but you should
love and worship God for the unique plan He gave not just me
or you but everyone.” – 8th grade student
  • “Through this experience, I learned about how special
God’s plan is for us all no matter who we are, what we look
like, or how we fulfill God’s plan.” – 5th grade student

These reflections from the students resonated how we
are equipping our students in a learning community focused
on discipleship. The students understood the big picture of
this project that as people called by God we are to recognize
that all people have a plan in God’s kingdom no matter our
differences, and we are to be co-laborers serving in God’s

We look forward to partnering with Elim again next
year in supporting this great program.

We at Elim Christian Services are proud to be partners with Southwest Chicago Christian Schools. Click here to learn more about them.

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Not as Much of a Blessing as You Might Think…

Living with disabilities is not as much of a blessing as you might think.

A few years ago I was at an event at the local Christian college, and afterwards I was speaking with the wife of the college president.  They had a child who was a student in Elim’s school program.

There were several conversations going on at Elim at the same time. The kind of conversations that you have when you are wondering what your organization is about and whether or not it’s relevant and whether or not you’re talking about the right things when you talk with donors and people from the community.

One of the things that we were talking about was what it meant for people who had disabilities to be a blessing to other people.  It was an easy conversation to have.  It seems like people understood it, especially those who had experience with people with disabilities, but one of the factors that goes into that discussion is what does it mean to be a blessing to someone else.

I remember talking, in all my naïvete, to this wonderful mom (the wife of the college president), and she was talking about her experiences with her son, and when I told her that we at Elim are talking about people with disabilities as being a blessing to other people, she didn’t exactly bristle, but her response could not be characterized as warm.

She said that she did not like it when organizations and people simply talked about people with disabilities being a blessing, and there’s a reason for that.  It’s not that people with disabilities can’t bless other people, but it is simpleminded to expect that they are a blessing at all times and in some cases, to perceive them as simply being a blessing because they are disabled.

There are many times when people I know have claimed that people with disabilities teach us more than we teach them or that they simply love more than we love, that they understand more than we give them credit for.  Each of these comments, while perhaps true to the experience of the person who utters them, is patronizing in many ways. 

For instance, we can deify the person with disabilities, extending to them qualities which are extra-human, marking them as a super-crip.  In such a way, you could argue, we even demean them by doing that, by saying that there are different expectations of someone with disabilities.

Now these kinds of comments about people with disabilities, that they’re more of a blessing to people than we are, that they love more, that they understand things that we don’t give them credit for, they’re not always untrue, but they are indicative of a perception of people with disabilities that they aren’t expected to do what we do, that they aren’t called by God to the same calling that we have.

I suppose that’s why when I think about what it means to be a friend of someone with disabilities, I can understand that one of the aspects of that friendship is valuing that person and really defining where that value comes from.

Now we can talk about and argue about “value” all day long, but this is a central, core tenet of what it means to have a Godly attitude towards people with disabilities.

What this mom was pointing out to me was that looking at people with disabilities and extending to them some kind of extra-human characteristic was robbing them of the character that they actually have in God.  If we are talking about how to value people with disabilities, as Christians we always associate that with someone’s value in God, but when we say that a person with disabilities has a greater capacity for love or that somehow they teach us more than we teach them, then we are saying that where their value lies is in what they can teach us or how much they love and how much better they actually are than we are.

These are false characteristics.  That isn’t really where their value is.

What this Elim mom was telling me is that  we don’t look at our children who have disabilities or our adult friends who have disabilities and claim them to be something more than what they truly are.  They are fallen like us.  They are called like us.

The expectations that they should play a role in the kingdom of God should be no different from what is expected of us.

A lot of that is dependent on the value that we place on their lives, and if we expect more of them than what they capable of, we’re not assigning them a fair value.  If we say that they not capable of doing anything, then we not assigning them a value that God has placed on their life, and finally if we assign to them some kind of extra-human characteristic that they are simply more loving and more in tune with God’s kingdom than we are, then we’re also saying that that’s what is expected of them and we’re making that their job description in God’s kingdom when their job description is really the same as ours.

If we do anything else, we’re actually being condescending.  We’re patronizing.

No one is exempt from the call that God places on our lives.  It doesn’t matter if you are more loving and more knowledgeable or whatever, you still have the same calling – to humble yourself before God, to serve at his pleasure, to serve at his mercy in his kingdom, for his glory.  That call is the same for me and for you and for people with disabilities, for people who are poor, for people who are disenfranchised.  For anyone who calls on the name of the Lord, the calling is the same; we are all called to serve his kingdom.

We’re also called to do something that is perhaps is difficult for us to understand.  We have to rid ourselves of the notion that God has placed a call on us because we’re normal, we have capacity, we have capability.

We are not the only ones who have been called to service in God’s kingdom.

When God says, “Encourage each other into every good work,” when he says, “Go into the world and baptize men and women in the name of God,” when we are called to do those things there is no line between people who are non-disabled and people who are disabled.  There’s not some imaginary line between them.  Everybody is subject to that call, everybody has been called by God, everybody has been gifted by God, and our job is to encourage and equip each other into every good work, those works that God has prepared in advance for us to do.


danvp_avatarDan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.




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Praying for Healing for the Wrong Person

Brad has served at Elim for almost three decades, and like many of us, he never expected to be here for very long. Something about Elim, though, draws you in.

Also, like a lot of us, Brad started out wishing for a better life for those we serve. After all, life with disabilities seems a grim prospect, and you at least wonder if there’s the possibility that something more could be done with their lives if only they weren’t all disabled.

So it happened that Brad would find himself praying for healing, not for himself, but for the adults with disabilities to whom he tended each day. One day, he was in the middle of this prayer, when Liz began to sing a hymn she had learned in her church.

When Brad told me this story, he said it was an eye-opener for him, perhaps literally, since he had been praying at the time. But figuratively too. Maybe it was God’s way of showing us that He doesn’t need us to be normal to show His love.

That raises a question for me, because I normally think of God in terms of His power, and that’s where a lot of this disability talk gets tripped up. Most of the people I know at Elim, who have a disability, will never have power. But what they often possess, and share freely, is a love that shames my own expression of this chief character of God.

But this, too, is an area where I have to be careful, because God did not make people with disabilities more loving than He did with me. They are just more uninhibited in sharing His love, and that’s probably what makes their expression of it so much more powerful than mine.


danvp_avatarDan Vander Plaats is the Director of Advancement at Elim Christian Services in Palos Heights, Illinois, a ministry that exists to equip people who live with disabilities to answer God’s call on their lives. He is also a member of the advisory committee for Disability Concerns for the Christian Reformed Church. In 2009, he developed “5 Stages: The Journey of Disability Attitudes” as a resource for Elim. The 5 Stages helps churches and individuals assess their attitudes toward people with disabilities. He is married to Denise (Hiemstra), and is father to Ben and Emma. They are members of Orland Park Christian Reformed Church in Illinois.