The U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon signed off December 29 on a first-of-its kind settlement, overhauling the state’s system of employment services for people with disabilities.
Nationwide, nearly 450,000 people with disabilities work in so-called “sheltered workshops,” Department of Labor-authorized nonprofits and state-run facilities that receive minimum wage exceptions so they can hire people perceived as otherwise unemployable. Many disability rights activists argue the system segregates people with disabilities and fails to provide them marketable skills to integrate into the workforce.
Disability Rights Oregon, the Center for Public Representation, Miller Nash Graham & Dunn and Perkins Coie sued the state of Oregon in January 2012, in what was believed to be the first Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuit challenging a state’s sheltered workshop network.
Prompted by the litigation, then-Governor John Kitzhaber cut off state funding for the facilities via executive order in April 2013. Although 1,900 individuals still are employed at the state’s 46 approved facilities, they have not hired any new workers since the state funding officially ended in July, according to the Oregonian.
The settlement, announced in September, sets a range of benchmarks for the state to move much of this remaining population into integrated employment, as detailed in this fact sheet [PDF] from the Department of Justice, which joined the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. High schools, which are required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to create transition plans for special education students, are now prohibited from pushing students into the sheltered workshops.
For disability advocates, the agreement is potentially precedent setting.
“Work is fundamental to contributing to and being fully included in the community,” said Vanita Gupta, head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in a news release. “People with disabilities deserve opportunities to work alongside their friends, peers and neighbors without disabilities and to earn fair wages, access equal opportunities for advancement and to achieve social and economic independence.”
Disability Rights Oregon and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the protection & advocacy systems for Oregon and Washington, and members of the National Disability Rights Network.