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When used metaphorically as slang (the literal meaning, possibly considered politically incorrect, is a workplace specifically for disabled people), what does the term "sheltered workshop" mean?

Example usage:

Honestly, academia is probably one of the last sheltered workshops for individuals to avoid rounding their knowledge and experiences off. Most intellectuals have never left school.

I tried a couple of dictionaries from onelook.com, and none of them had the slang meaning, nor did Wiktionary or even, surprisingly enough, Urban Dictionary.

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    I don't think his is slang: sheltered is used metaphorically, per the description used in the sentence in question, and workshop is used (perhaps somewhat unidiomatically) to mean place of work.
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 18, 2016 at 11:30
  • @DanBron I've added a link to the literal meaning. Apr 18, 2016 at 11:36
  • Interesting, I've never heard the words used as a set binomial before. Maybe it's a BrE vs AmE difference. Anyway, I think my analysis still stands: a place of work where the occupants are sheltered (from "the real world"). Not sure who downvoted you, but this is a legit question, and you've done your homework, so I've upvoted to cancel it out.
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 18, 2016 at 11:40
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    Sheltered housing is primarily a BrE usage, so I expect OP's cite is from a Brit. Until a few decades ago most disabled/mentally people were "cared for" in large institutions, but these days they're accommodated in the community if at all possible (in converted family houses, with care workers/night warders/etc. as required). But we don't really have (or endorse) dedicated workshops for the disabled - larger companies are legally obliged to employ them (with appropriate adjustments/support) within normal workplaces. So the cited usage is ignorant as well as potentially offensive. Apr 18, 2016 at 11:58
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    It easy for the US English speaker to interpret. A "sheltered workshop" is a place where (usually mentally) disabled people work. (To my knowledge the term has not developed a "politically incorrect" cast.) When used as a metaphor in the above-quoted sense it simply means a place of work for certain people who might be said, with a wink, to have certain "disabilities" disqualifying them from "normal" jobs. They are quite literally being "sheltered" from "normal" life.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 18, 2016 at 12:16

1 Answer 1

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Literally, a sheltered workshop is essentially a place where people with limited abilities are given employment. In extreme cases, they perform tasks which are essentially of no value, and it has been seen as a kind of babysitting for adults with disability.

When I have heard this word metaphorically it's referring to these attributes:

  • Participants who would not "survive" outside that environment
  • People are not meaningfully questioned, challenged etc.
  • A general lack of relevance or usefulness of the work being done.
  • Being paid despite all of the above.

So, calling academia a "sheltered workshop" is to imply that this is a safe place for people who have no useful contribution to make in industry, but can find employment nonetheless. It's highly disparaging both to disability advocates and to academia, of course.

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