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Chris Serres and Tim McGuire talk in the Cronkite School

First place winner Chris Serres discusses his project at Cronkite’s Must See Monday

By AnnMargaret Haines

One journalist’s in-depth look into the lives of people with developmental disabilities living in sheltered workshops has received a powerful reaction nationwide.

Reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune Chris Serres showed through his series of stories how the isolation of sheltered workshops limits the choices and opportunities of people with disabilities. His work led to him receiving the 2016 Katherine Schneider Award for Excellence in Disability Journalism.

The first Schneider Award was given in 2013 under the judgement of the National Center on Disability and Journalism and is the only journalism award contest exclusively for disability reporting. The contest was started with the help of Katherine Schneider, a retired clinical psychologist who was born blind.

The award was presented to Serres on Monday night at a question-and-answer session held at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“But beyond laws and politics, access to the good things of life for people with disabilities is achieved by all of us, both disabled and temporarily able-bodied, making it happen,” said Katherine Schneider before she introduced Serres to the floor.

Throughout the night, NCDJ board member Tim McGuire asked Serres questions about his project.

“Chris’s project provokes outrage and demands action,” McGuire said before the questions began.

When describing his work on the project, Serres immediately made it clear that the problem was greater than the workshops themselves.

“People who were being isolated in group homes were also being limited on having relationships with others,” Serres said.

Part of his series was on how people in these sheltered homes were unable to experience love and intimacy because they were cut off from regular life. Serres said he was “surprised” by the number of people who were unable to date.

Another major issue Serres discovered was that the people in sheltered workshops were not asked about their aspirations or encouraged to reach for something more.

“No one was asking them, ‘what do you want out of life?’” Serres said. “It was just assumed that they were safe. But it’s about more than safety. It’s about self-actualization. We all have a right to self-actualization.”

Serres said that the way of thinking in Minnesota is that as long as people with disabilities are protected, nothing else matters. 

“People have to be given the opportunity to fail,” Serres said. “They have to be given the opportunity to take risks. We can’t make these little bubbles around people.”

To contrast the isolation in Minnesota, Serres also wrote about great work happening for people with disabilities in Vermont. He told the story of a woman he met who has Down syndrome. She started her own cookie business in the basement of a church.

“I saw people with the same disability in Minnesota that were toiling away in a sheltered workshop making 50 cents an hour, where in Vermont they were able to start their own businesses,” Serres said.

Serres quoted McGuire’s use of the phrase “extreme customization” to explain Vermont’s success with treating everyone uniquely based on what is best for them.

However, Serres work did not come without criticism. In fact, Serres said much of the reaction to his work was criticism from parents who were concerned about what their child with a disability would do all day without sheltered workshops.

Serres said he believes the best answer to this concern is something Schneider suggested to him personally, “a cafeteria of choices.”

“We have to keep in mind that, as someone once said, disability is a very open club,” Serres said. “We can all join it at any time.”

Second place for the Schneider Award was given to the NPR station in Washington, D.C., WAMU 88.5, third place to ProPublic and an honorable mention was given to Business World in New Delhi.

Photo courtesy of National Center on Disability and Journalism.