DOJ intervenes in Oregon, sheltered workshops case

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The U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has filed an amicus brief on behalf of a group of disability advocacy groups who are suing the state of Oregon for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act in its system of sheltered workshops.

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Though originally conceived as job training centers to help people with disabilities transfer into the workforce, sheltered workshops have recently become a target for disability rights activists, who claim that states used these workshops to exploit people with disabilities and segregate them from the workforce.

In Oregon, just five percent of the state’s workforce in its sheltered workshops ever transfer into the workforce and many of these employees are paid at wages well below the minimum wage.

In January, Disability Rights Oregon, the Center for Public Representation and the United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington filed a class action lawsuit, believed to be first of its type nationwide, on behalf of 2,300 people in Oregon working in sheltered workshops.

In its amicus brief, the Justice Department supported the advocacy groups’ argument that the state is forcing people with disabilities into segregated workshops by failing to provide appropriate supported employment services, a term used to describe services to help people with disabilities integrate into the workforce.

However, the DOJ brief focused on the expansive scope of the ADA. Specifically, it argued that the ADA’s integration mandate – normally used to describe how states must provide housing services so people can live outside of segregated, institutional settings – is directly applicable to the employment context.

“Just as ‘institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,’…the unwarranted placement of persons with disabilities in sheltered workshops similarly perpetuates ‘unwarranted assumptions’ that such persons are ‘incapable or unworthy’ of working in competitive employment or interacting with non-disabled co-workers or customers,” the DOJ stated in its amicus brief, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.

This is not the first time that the DOJ has interpreted the ADA’s integration mandate to include employment services. In its recent settlement with Virginia, where the state agreed to close four of its five institutions, the state also agreed to reduce its reliance on sheltered workshops as part of its plan for making its state services compliant with the ADA.

The National Disability Rights Network released a new report April 3, detailing how federal funding priorities encourage states to “exploit” people with disabilities working in sheltered workshops.

Disability Rights Oregon is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.