Oregon to move away from sheltered workshops

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Facing heavy pressure from the Obama Administration and disability advocates, Oregon Governor John Kitzbhaber issued a 15-page executive order April 11 stating that the state will stop funding its system of sheltered workshops by 2015.

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“(The order) sets forth a plan to both close the front door into sheltered work and to move a certain number of people out of sheltered workshops into employment situations over the next nine years,” Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, told the Oregonian. “Obviously, if the state were to succeed in doing that, it would be a positive development.”

Originally conceived as job training centers to help people with severe disabilities transfer into the workforce, so-called sheltered workshops have been heavily criticized by disability rights activists, who claims that the systems are exploitive.

Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice moved to intervene in an ongoing class action lawsuit that characterizes the the state’s practice of continuing to fund sheltered workshops, while failing to provide to provide appropriate supported employment services, as a form of segregation in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The DOJ had previously filed a statement of interest on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first of its type nationwide.

“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,” Disability Rights Oregon, the Center for Public Representation and the United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon and Southwest Washington state in the lawsuit, filed in January 2012 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon.

The executive order also sets a November 1 deadline for the state Department of Human Services to create an integrated employment plans and creates a new position of Statewide Employment Coordinator for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, to oversee the transition.

It is unclear if the lawsuit will be dropped in light of the announcement.

The Oregonian published an extensive investigation of the state’s sheltered workshop system in 2006 and 2007 that brought national attention to the issue. The National Disability Rights Network released an report April 2012 criticizing federal funding priorities that encourage reliance on sheltered employment systems.

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