Bob Joondeph is executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, which helped represent plaintiffs in the case.

Bob Joondeph is executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, which helped represent plaintiffs in the case.

Kate Davidson, OPB

Many Oregonians with intellectual and developmental disabilities want to work, and they do. They’re people with conditions like Down syndrome.

This week’s proposed settlement of a federal class action lawsuit could affect thousands of them. Private plaintiffs, later joined by the U.S. Department of Justice, argued that Oregon violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by unnecessarily segregating people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or I/DD, in what’s known as “sheltered workshops.”

Oregon has already taken steps to reduce reliance on sheltered workshops, and to encourage integrated employment so that people with I/DD can work alongside non-disabled peers. Under the proposed settlement agreement, the state would ensure that 1,115 adults currently in sheltered workshops achieve competitive employment over the next seven years. The settlement still needs a judge’s approval.

OPB’s All Things Considered host Kate Davidson discussed the proposed agreement with Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon, which helped represent the plaintiffs. An edited transcript is below.

Q&A with Bob Joondeph

Kate Davidson: What are sheltered workshops?

Bob Joondeph: Sheltered workshops are facilities that are owned and operated, usually by non-profits, that provide employment services to people with intellectual/developmental disabilities. And by employment services, what I mean is that there’s job training and actual jobs. Those jobs tend to be very basic and those sheltered workshops can pay people less than minimum wage. And so people who work in those workshops can earn as little as pennies an hour, eight cents an hour.

Davidson: And what kind of work might they be doing?

Joondeph: It’s a variety of things. It’s usually factory type work. Sorting things. Putting things in bags. Sometimes janitorial work is included, but there are a variety of types of services that they do.

Davidson: And so what does this proposed settlement say about the plan going forward?

Joondeph: Our agreement with the state will require them to provide integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities who have been stuck in sheltered workshops. It will also require them to provide services for youth coming out of school who are ready to work and to help them to succeed in finding jobs. The total number of folks who will be affected by this, both the people in workshops and students, is somewhere in the area of 7,000 individuals. 

Davidson: And so what is the alternative model outside of the sheltered workshop?

Joondeph: Integrated employment services are very individualized. So an individual, either a student or an older person, sits down with a worker who is trained to determine what their abilities, desires, choices are in terms of work, and then to help them achieve their goals. That can be providing additional training, helping them look for work, helping them find a job and succeed in their job. It’s a variety of services designed to help a person have the skills, and then find and maintain employment.

Davidson: There was an editorial in the Bend Bulletin Friday morning, and it read in part: “The state should make what effort it can to help disabled workers transition from sheltered workshops into real jobs. But it doesn’t mean that sheltered workshops should be abandoned.” Do you agree with that? Do you believe that there is still some place for sheltered workshops in Oregon?

Joondeph: It’s important to remember that this settlement and our case as a whole did not ask that sheltered workshops be closed. What it asked for is that people have a meaningful opportunity to choose the alternative, which is to seek community employment. Our expectation is that as that choice becomes real and the services are better, that more and more people will choose the community option. Then it really sets up a true competitive situation in which some people may continue to choose segregated employment. But we expect that more and more people will, as they see their peers succeed and making more money, that they will be attracted to that option.