The History of Disability Employment in Oregon

Not so long ago, people with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD) were considered “unemployable.” Most lived with families or in institutions: not working, not earning money for themselves, not out in the community. When they were employed, it was in segregated sheltered workshops that paid pennies. Today, Oregonians with I/DD work in community-based jobs that provide them with meaning—and with decent paychecks. How did we get from there to here?

Disability Employment Rights Laws Paved the Way

It is hard to pinpoint when attitudes about employment for people with disabilities began to change, but the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was certainly a turning point. The law prohibits discrimination based on disability in programs (including employment) conducted by federal agencies, federal contractors, and programs receiving federal financial assistance. It allowed people with disabilities to demonstrate their value to the workforce.

In 1975, the U.S. passed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (now known as IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which helped ensure children with disabilities receive a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive setting.” Providing an education obviously helped people when it came to employment, but there was also a less visible benefit. Now that the children with disabilities could receive a free public education, many families began withdrawing them from institutions. More people with disabilities lived—and could work—in the community.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. Title I of the ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, and gives employees with disabilities the right to ask for a “reasonable accommodation,” that is, “any change to the application or hiring process, to the job, to the way the job is done, or the work environment that allows a person with a disability who is qualified for the job to perform the essential functions of that job and enjoy equal employment opportunities” (from the ADA National Network).

But What Were the Employment Opportunities?

As recently as the early 2000s, community sheltered workshops constituted the majority of employment options open to someone with an intellectual/developmental disability. What exactly is a sheltered workshop? Designed to provide a supportive environment offering skill-building and time-limited training, a sheltered workshop was meant to help people with I/DD transition to community employment and life. In some cases, they were just that. But sheltered workshop employees tended to be segregated from other employees. They often did not know why they were doing the task they worked at for hours every week. And they were paid sub-minimum wages. Chaz Volavka, ALSO’s employment director, worked as a supervisor at a sheltered workshop early in his career. “I did not love the fact the people were making cents on the dollar.”

Other people did not love that fact, either, and the employment landscape began to shift. Vocational day programs popped up, where people could not only work, but also interact with the community, make progress on individualized goals, and use structured activities like art and music to help build skills. ALSO ran such a program until 2014, where artmaking was such a success that they purchased a gallery in downtown Portland (the gallery has since moved to Troutdale).

In 2008, Oregon was one of the first states to adopt Employment First as a policy. Employment First asserts that working age adults and youth with I/DD can work in jobs fully integrated in the community, and the policy strove to make this a reality by making person-centered practices and employment in integrated jobs “the first and priority option in planning employment services for working-age adults and youth.”

But too many people still toiled in sheltered workshop. In 2012, Disability Rights Oregon, Miller Nash, Perkins Coie, and the Center for Public Representation filed the nation’s first-class action lawsuit to challenge sheltered workshops paying sub-minimum wages to people with I/DD in segregated environments. Plaintiffs in the case wanted “outside jobs” and a little spending money for activities like bowling, but instead spent years watching television or working for as little as 29 cents an hour.

The suit, Lane v. Brown, was settled in 2015. The agreement required Oregon to decrease the number of people in sheltered workshops and increase the number of people in community jobs. Oregon stopped allowing new sheltered workshops in 2015, ended funding for sheltered workshops in 2018, and ended the sub-minimum wage for sheltered workshops.

Sheltered Workshops vs. Supported Employment

ALSO promotes an individualized methodology to supported employment. “We use a person-centered approach,” says Chaz. “No service is the same as another. Each person’s supports are individualized to their strengths.” Miranda Chatterton, ALSO’s Supported Employment Manager, explains the process, sometimes called “job-carving:” “First we get a feel for the individual’s skill sets and stamina, and then learn what they’d like to do and why.” For example, Damone wanted to work around cars. “He loves all aspects of vehicles,” says Miranda, “so we found him a job at Napa Auto Parts. He gets to scan items and put them away and has the opportunity to talk to customers about cars.”

Once ALSO finds the right job, the team provides support for the employee via job coaching. “We’re with them however long they need us,” says Miranda. “Once everyone is comfortable, we back off and check in once a week, or whatever they want us to do. We’re always there, checking to see how it’s going on the job, or if they need any changes in accommodations, that sort of thing.”

Some employers are wary at first. “They are afraid that the person we want to place can’t do a good job, or they’ll be a liability, or they (the employer) will have to watch them,” says Chaz. “There’s a lot of assumption because they don’t know how to support someone on the job. We try to teach employers as quickly as possible that it’s not scary and eventually become their natural support on the job.

When first approached about hiring a woman named Jamie, Denae Marlow of Chang’s Mongolian Grill was worried Jamie might fall behind and cause customer complaints. “But Miranda talked to me about how things worked and that if Jamie needed a job coach that they would jump in wherever and whenever.” The placement has been a great success. “Jamie is now one of our best workers in the kitchen,” Deanae says. “She is one of the only ones that can handle doing two positions when our job responsibilities changed during the Covid-19 pandemic. I am incredibly happy and appreciative that the ALSO team took the time to talk to me and walk me through their process.”

The Right Employment Empowers Individuals

Community-based employment often pays dividends beyond money. For example, Amanda first worked in a sheltered workshop, transitioned to a vocational day program, and then to supported employment at McDonald’s, where she makes fries. “She loves it,” says Miranda. “She’s been there over four years now.” It is not just Amanda’s job situation that has changed. “She lived with us at the beginning, and needed lots of support,” says Chaz. “She’s since moved out of our agency to a foster care where she’s doing really well.”

Such a trajectory is not uncommon in Oregon, a leader in person-centered employment practices. It is not so elsewhere. Most states still permit sheltered workshops. As of October 2020, more than 1,200 organizations paid workers with disabilities sub-minimum wages. But Oregonians with I/DD are making great strides in employment, especially with ALSO. “This year, we have the most employees we’ve ever had in Oregon and in ALSO,” says Chaz. “Two years ago, we had fourteen people in community-based jobs. Today we have forty.” Miranda believes the success comes from the people involved. “I feel like we’re different, our hearts are in it. We love these guys and will do whatever we can to make sure they’re supported. We care.”

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