PAULA LANE works in Beaverton, folding boxes for something like 40 to 60 cents an hour. Everyone on her crew, other than the paid supervising staff, has a disability. Because Lane has Down syndrome, and because she's part of a state employment program for people with disabilities, this segregation and low pay is legal.

Two disability advocacy groups are trying to change that. They filed suit against the state late last month, arguing that Oregon's system of work programs for people with disabilities violates the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and holds back the very people those programs are supposed to be helping.

Lane is one of 2,243 Oregonians who work in "sheltered" workshops—state-funded workshops that employ only people with disabilities, except for supervisors. This disability-based segregation, and the rote nature of the jobs, make those workshops archaic, advocates say. And despite several attempts to shift Oregon toward more modern "supported" employment of people with disabilities—in integrated jobs where they typically also make more money—the state is sliding backward instead.

In 1991, half of people with disabilities enrolled in state job services were in integrated workplaces. Today, only 20.8 percent are.

"The state says they want to improve, but they're not getting it done," says Disability Rights Oregon Executive Director Bob Joondeph, who filed the lawsuit against Governor John Kitzhaber and the state department of human services alongside the group United Cerebral Palsy. "The ADA says that if the government is providing a service to people with disabilities, it should not unnecessarily segregate them."

Federal funding for those support services has declined, but Joondeph says the issue is how Oregon's human services department has failed to change.

The lawsuit's eight plaintiffs all live in the Portland area, work in segregated workshops for far less than minimum wage, and they all say they would like to move into integrated jobs but have never had the chance.

Overall, the state spends $30 million a year on sheltered workshops and ranks 16th out of 39 states in providing non-segregated jobs for people with disabilities. Shifting away from sheltered workshops is also cheaper overall. According to a national study, the average employee in a sheltered job costs the public coffers $19,388 a year, versus $6,618 for each person in supported employment, in part because they require less supervision and have larger incomes to support themselves.

The state offices named in the lawsuit could not comment on the specifics of the case, but issued a statement saying that the issue has been the subject of an "ongoing effort": "We remain committed to continuing the efforts that began well before this lawsuit was filed."


Two-Question Interview with Disability Rights Oregon Executive Director Bob Joondeph

MERCURY: How did it become legal to pay people with disabilities pennies per hour?

BOB JOONDEPH: Back in the WWII era, the government came up with the idea of a sub-minimum wage as a way to employ war vets who had become disabled and pay them at a level that was determined to be their level of productivity. The idea is this will allow people to be employed who can't compete in the regular marketplace. But over the years, an industry developed to use the sub-minimum wage to fund these sheltered programs, where you have an organization that's going to get a city contract to do something like paper shredding. There are critics of those programs who feel they take contracting opportunities away from their companies.

In your experience, what's it actually like in these sub-minimum-wage workplaces?

One thing that's consistent is they are segregated places, but some are better than others. We've been in warehouses that are noisy, unsanitary, old, there's people sitting around. In one workshop, there was a guy just sitting there, chewing his fist, because no one was paying attention to him. In others, they're very nice, and the staff is very attentive.