Lawsuit filed against Oregon’s system of sheltered workshops

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Paula Lane, 48, has been working at a publicly funded sheltered workshop in Beaverton, Oregon since 2000, earning as little as $0.40 per hour doing repetitive tasks such as folding and packaging UPS products.

The graphic is the Oregon flag inside an outline of the state

News from Oregon

Lane, who has autism and an anxiety disorder, repeatedly asks the vocational agency to “help her find an outside job,” referring to a job in a setting where she is integrated with people without disabilities. Despite consistently receiving top scores by her employers for her work, the state has failed to transfer her to a new employment situation.

On Wednesday, a group of disability advocacy groups filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Oregon on behalf of 2,300 people in Oregon working in sheltered workshops.

The lawsuit contends that the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by funding a program that segregates and exploits people with disabilities.

“Without meaningful supported employment services, the named plaintiffs and the plaintiff class are stuck in long-term, dead-end, facility based sheltered workshops that offer virtually no interaction with non-disabled peers, that do not provide any pathway to integrated employment, and that provide compensation that is well below minimum wage,” according to the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the nation.

Sheltered workshops were originally conceived as “job training programs” to transfer people with disabilities into the workforce. However, fewer than 5 percent of people in Oregon’s system of sheltered workshops ever transfer into integrated employment settings.

For two decades, Oregon was a national leader in vocational training for people with disabilites. This trend reversed in the 1990s, and the state, according to the lawsuit, now “lacks a comprehensive and effectively working plan for moving people into more integrated settings,” according to the lawsuit. The state spends about $20,000 per individual in its sheltered workshops, or more than three times as much as it would through alternative programs.

“Sheltered workshops are an outdated service model which is based upon the stereotype that people with disabilities cannot engage in competitive employment and are not capable of succeeding at real work,” the lawsuit stated. “For many years, disability professionals have considered sheltered workshops the last resort, or a helpless end point, for people with disabilities.”

The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Oregon, the Center for Public Representation and the United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington.

The National Disability Rights Network released an extensive report in January 2011 detailing conditions at sheltering workshops nationwide, calling them the “new warehousing systems” for people with disabilities whom have left institutional settings.

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