Kitzhaber plans workplace help for disabled

PORTLAND — Facing a lawsuit backed by the federal government, Gov. John Kitzhaber has released plans to move more Oregonians with severe disabilities into the general workforce and to decrease state funding for nonprofit sheltered workshops.

Kitzhaber issued an executive order on Thursday and named an official of the state's Office of Developmental Disabilities Services to help make the plan work, the Oregonian reported.

Two weeks ago the U.S. Justice Department joined a class action lawsuit that alleges the state violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by segregating disabled workers in what are known as sheltered workshops that federal law allows to pay less than the minimum wage.

Critics say the workshops offer dead-end, piecework jobs, although their sponsors say some families and workers prefer them.

A key goal of the state's Employment First plan is to halt a cycle in which special education students graduate from high school and immediately take jobs in the workshops.

Kitzhaber's 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,” said Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon. “Obviously, if the state were to succeed in doing that, it would be a positive development.”

But Joondeph said he had concerns, such as whether Kitzhaber's plan would allow employers to pay workers below the federal minimum wage.

Oregon once was a leader in providing job coaches and other workplace support to move people with significant developmental or intellectual disabilities into the general workforce.

Today, just 16 percent of those workers are in the general workforce, while 61 percent are in sheltered workshops, the Justice Department reported.

The number of Oregonians working in those sheltered workshops, sometimes earning pennies an hour, has nearly doubled to 2,600 since the 1990s.

Kitzhaber said Mike Maley, deputy director of the Office of Developmental Disabilities Services, would be the state's first statewide employment coordinator for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Maley has spent his career working with the disabled.


Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com

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