Gimme Shelter 

Program for Disabled Workers Braces for Lawsuit

CREATIVE OPTIONS Bags designed and printed at Port City Development.

CREATIVE OPTIONS Bags designed and printed at Port City Development.

IN A NONDESCRIPT warehouse on N. Williams, men with disabilities wield saws and paintbrushes, a woman with minimal motor skills powers a sewing machine with her chin, and a young guy scribbles new pages in his vampire fantasy novel.

This is Project Grow, a group that runs "alternative to work" programs along with its umbrella nonprofit Port City Development, which runs "sheltered" workshops for people with disabilities. But as Art Program Manager Emese Ilyes says, there's "no name for what we are."

The role of state-funded sheltered workshops came into sharp focus this month, after advocacy groups Disability Rights Oregon and United Cerebral Palsy took them on in a lawsuit ["When Is Segregation Legal?" News, Feb 9]. Although Project Grow is a standout workshop—its participants are visibly joyful and its programs have a waitlist—its staff fears the lawsuit will wind up shutting them down.

The lawsuit argues that Oregon is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, sliding backward on goals to fund more integrated employment opportunities instead of "sheltered" programs where people with disabilities work on segregated crews, often performing menial tasks for less than minimum wage. In 1991, half of people with disabilities enrolled in state job services were in integrated workplaces. Today, only 20.8 percent are.

"The lawsuit doesn't ask for anything to be closed," says Bob Joondeph, executive director of Disability Rights Oregon. Instead, he hopes to push the state into overhauling the way it funds work programs, to better serve the needs of disabled workers. "We shouldn't have a public system built around the needs of an industry to maintain its funding."

Tina is one of the 145 people with disabilities who arrive for work daily at Project Grow's complex in North Portland—an entire city block encompassing a woodshop, art gallery and studio, assembly warehouse, 1.5-acre farm (complete with fuzzy goats), and solar-powered waffle cart. Tina earns money by staffing the front office part time and selling art she has made. But before starting at Project Grow five years ago, she worked at Goodwill, hanging clothes.

"The job didn't last long. I didn't like it, they were rude," she says.

About 45 of those who show up for work every day at Port City are employed sorting coat hangers and laundry bags for a piecework rate that earns some slower workers only a few cents an hour. But the nonprofit's goal is to offer people with disabilities a wide range of creative job options. Those hanger sorters can sometimes switch to running screenprinting presses or they can occasionally work outside on the farm, says Jana McLellan, executive director of Port City.

"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," she says. "Working at Safeway or New Seasons works for a certain vein of people, but not everyone."

The impact of the lawsuit on places like Project Grow is entirely unclear.

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

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