Bags designed and screenprinted by Project Grow's clients with disabilities.

In a nondescript warehouse on North Williams, a crew of men with disabilities wield saws, a woman with minimal motor skills powers a sewing machine with her chin, and a guy named Eddy scribbles new pages in his vampire fantasy novel. This is Project Grow, a nonprofit that runs "alternative to work" programs and its umbrella nonprofit, Port City Development, that runs sheltered workshops for people with disabilities.

But as art program manager Emese Ilyes says, "The system has no name for what we are." The role of sheltered workshops came into sharp focus this month because of a lawsuit Disability Rights Oregon and United Cerebral Palsy filed against the state, which has lagged behind its goal of funding more integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities rather than "sheltered" programs where people with disabilities work on segregated crews often performing menial tasks for far less than minimum wage.

Port City Development is one of the stand-out workshops—its patrons are visibly joyful and its programs have a waitlist—but on paper many of the nonprofit's ventures are "sheltered," and staff fears the lawsuit will wind up cutting their funding and shutting them down. The complicated position of Project Grow highlights the issues with trying to create innovative, inclusive programs for people with widely-ranging disabilities when, at the end of the day, programs need to fit into one of several small bureaucratic boxes to receive state and federal funding.

Every day, about 145 people with disabilities arrive for work at Project Grow's complex on North Williams—an entire city block encompassing a wood shop, art gallery and studio, assembly warehouse, solar-powered waffle cart, and 1.5 acre farm (complete with fuzzy goats whose wool clients shear and turn into reasonably priced textiles).

Port City was founded in 1978 by a group of parents of people with disabilities. About 45 of the people who now work there daily are employed in the more-standard job of sorting coat hangers and laundry bags for a piecework rate that earns some slower workers only a few cents an hour, but the goal of Port City is to offer people with disabilities a wide range of creative job options and a friendly environment. Those hanger-sorters can switch up to instead run screenprinting presses or occasionally work outside on the farm, says Executive Director Jana McLellan.

"Port City holds itself to be different than a standard sheltered workshop because there's lots of links with the community. It's about allowing people to have lots of experiences that aren't just sitting there, coloring with crayons and watching Disney movies," says McLellan. "Working at Safeway or New Seasons works for a certain vein of people, but not everyone." Project Grow makes money many ways, including direct state funding, private grants, the contract piecework, selling art at local businesses, and running a 25-member CSA.

In the giant art studio, dozens of people mix clay, hunch over drawing projects, and work on looms.

"Hopefully you won't know who's who," says manager Ilyes, looking out over the crowd of people with disabilities and attending staff. While Ilyes stresses that the space is a professional art studio, with clients receiving 90 percent of the sale price of their art, according to the state, the busily crafting artists are engaged in an "alternative to employment."

"The state sometimes has difficult seeing this as self-employment, just how society has difficulty seeing artists and farmers as self-employed," says Ilyes. "From the bottom up, we're trying to change the system."


A client named Tina started in Project Grow's art program five years ago, but has recently become the site's official greeter and part-time office staffer, still remembers the first piece of art she sold: A ceramic horse wearing a cowboy hat (she'd made a cowboy, too, but dropped him on the floor and had to get resourceful). Before finding Project Grow, Tina worked at Goodwill hanging clothes and hated the job. "The job didn't last long. I didn't like it, they were rude," she says.

The impact of the recent lawsuit on places like Project Grow is entirely unclear. On the one hand, staffers hope it will make the state reexamine its disability programs and come up with a framework for funding innovative, inclusive work programs. But in a less rosy scenario, the state could decide to end funding to sheltered workshops altogether, regardless of their specific cases.

"We don't know how it will turn out," says McLellan. "This lawsuit will definitely push something."

UPDATE: This blog post was edited to make it clear that Port City runs the sheltered workshop programs while Project Grow runs the art-and-farm "alternative to work" programs.