The 80-20 Rule and A Call to Freeze Referrals to Sheltered Work

The Pareto Principle is a well known economic theory that can be applied to a lot of situations. It goes something like this: about 80% of effectiveness is driven by just 20% of our activity. This distribution has also been found to relate to how a small number of people control 80% of the wealth. Or in business, how 80% of your income comes from just 20% of your customers. (Interestingly, some theories also note how 80% of your life’s problems comes from just 20% of those people you know…)
Whatever the actual percentages per situation, the 80-20 rule is fascinating in what it implies – that often we are involved with things that seem related to our goals, but are really not very significant to achieving them, and in fact can become distractions. We thus confuse being busy with accomplishment. But the Pareto Principle says that unless you are getting the right things done, your ‘busyness’ is just an illusion of progress. It’s the difference between a shotgun that scatters its impact with laser surgery that focuses it where it needs to be.
Let’s apply this to the continuing problem of segregation of people with disabilities. If we consider how little progress we have made with employment rates of people with disabilities, and how few segregated facilities have closed, one should wonder why this is. After all, we have had multi-million dollar system change grants, along with multitudes of conferences, research studies, and training over the years. We have definitely been busy. We’ve had lots of meetings, white papers, and hand-wringing on employment rates.
One problem as I see it is that within all these initiatives, we have not focused on the few that might matter at a systems level. For example, we invest money and time and then teach and promote a myriad of new and creative employment strategies that are applied for far too few people. It’s great to know creative ways to find a vocation; we do need this kind of information. But it’s now been over 30 years since the dawn of supported employment; I think we have enough of what we need by now to get going. Sure, things will progress and we will learn better ways of doing things. But this is like ignoring a burning building to repair the front steps. It’s long past time to prioritize!
I would propose that if you want people to eventually be employed and not spend their days in a segregated facility, you need a basic and realistic policy starting place. That is, you have to stop letting people now entering the adult service system to even gain entry into sheltered workshop services. Simply stop the workshop referrals now, and you at least “freeze” the magnitude of a problem that every day grows larger. 
This is of course just a simplistic step, and no real comprehensive solution, but it is the initial necessary baseline for change. It will take years to completely phase out workshops, and there will be real political and social battles along the way. Like deinstitutionalization, people will complain about losing a service option, albeit one shown ineffective and potentially exploitive. But at least the problem won’t get worse than it already is and thus more difficult. And we won’t be unnecessarily sentencing young people to lifelong segregation needlessly while we spend precious resources on facilities and their related expenses.
Are there other steps within the Pareto Principle that apply? I think there are at least two more as starters. One would be an extension of the non-admission policy toward people who leave the workshop for employment. In other words, if they lose their job, they cannot return to the workshop. And still another would be the phasing out of sub-minimum wage. I will blog further about these in my coming posts and talk more about how to phase out facilities. 
Taken together, we might find that prioritizing our strategies for change might make more sense than continuing a shotgun approach of just promoting everything that seems a bit better than a workshop, then hoping for the best. I’m afraid the evidence has come in on that approach, and it hasn’t worked. 
November 27, 2011
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