PORTLAND, Ore (Reuters) - Thousands of disabled Oregonians are stuck segregated in dead-end jobs at "sheltered workshops," in violation of federal law, because of failed state programs that should help them find mainstream employment, according to a landmark lawsuit filed on Wednesday.

Sheltered workshops, sometimes called "work-activity programs," are facilities funded by state and local agencies and nonprofit groups around the country that provide jobs to disabled people performing basic, unskilled labor such as packaging or simple assembly tasks.

Workers at these facilities are typically paid less than minimum wage, according to U.S. labor standards for piece work.

While intended as stepping stones to jobs in the competitive labor market, sheltered workshops have drawn fire from critics who say too many disabled people are being segregated and exploited by them. Those critics also say sheltered jobs tend to perpetuate a stereotype that disabled individuals are incapable of succeeding at real work.

Wednesday's class-action case, brought on behalf of the Oregon chapter of the Cerebral Palsy Association and eight individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is the first of its kind in any state, said Michael Bailey, president of the National Disability Rights Network.

The federal court suit was filed in Portland, he said, because Oregon once led the nation in providing vocational training services that helped integrate developmentally disabled workers into actual community-based jobs earning minimum wage or better.

But since the mid-1990s, the lawsuit said, "Oregon has reversed course, increasing its reliance on segregated workshops while simultaneously decreasing its development and use of supported employment services."

The plaintiff class the lawsuit seeks to encompass consists of several thousand individuals with various mental and physical disabilities who are qualified for integrated employment or programs to move them into mainstream jobs.

Currently, more than 2,300 disabled people are segregated in sheltered workshops in Oregon at any one time, most of them "stuck in long-term, dead-end" facilities "that offer virtually no interaction with non-disabled peers, that do not provide any real pathway to integrated employment and that provide compensation that is well below minimum wage," the suit says.

In 1988, about half those people were receiving state support in making the transition to mainstream work environments that pay competitive wages, the suit says. By 2010, that number had dropped to less than a quarter.

"We filed this lawsuit in Oregon because they know how to do it and have done it before," Bailey told Reuters. "Oregon has a history of doing this right."

The suit says Oregon's "over-reliance on sheltered workshops and its failure to timely develop and adequately fund integrated employment services" violates protections against discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.

The Oregon Department of Justice issued a statement saying the state was working "to improve its services to the developmentally disabled, including assistance with employment opportunities for the disabled in the broader community."

It said the latest effort involved a "stakeholder planning process" scheduled to commence on Friday, and that both the United Cerebral Palsy Association and Disability Rights Oregon, whose lawyers filed the suit, had been invited to participate.

The lawsuit comes a year after the National Disability Rights Network published a scathing critique of sheltered workshops, saying they "have replaced institutions in many states as the new warehousing system and are the new favored locations where people with disabilities are sent to occupy their days."

"Segregated and sheltered work," the report said, "keeps people with disabilities in the shadows."

Both the report and the lawsuit cited studies finding that the cost of sheltered workshops runs as much as three times the expense of providing employment support services.

In making the case that such facilities are largely outdated, Bailey cited the example of his own 23-year-old daughter, Eleanor, who has Down Syndrome and is employed at a Portland-area grocery store, thanks in part to help from a strong advocate who guided her into a job there.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)

[Image via Shutterstock.com.]

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