- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A federal judge will hear Monday from people affected by a proposed settlement involving employment for people with developmental disabilities.

The settlement stems from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2012 alleging that Oregon relies too heavily on so-called “sheltered workshops,” where people with disabilities work almost exclusively with disabled co-workers. In some cases, they earn less than minimum wage for menial work.

The lawsuit alleged that Oregon’s practice prevented people with disabilities from working with non-disabled peers in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the suit a year after it was filed by sheltered workplace employees and advocacy groups.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice Stewart, who is overseeing the case, must sign off on the settlement before it can take effect. The hearing Monday in Portland’s federal courthouse is a chance for people who have worked in a sheltered workshop to weigh in on the proposal.

Since 2013, about 3,900 people with intellectual or developmental disabilities have worked in sheltered workshops in Oregon, according to the Justice Department. Once people begin working in one, they stay for an average of 11 years. More than half earn less than $3 per hour.

In 2012, the DOJ said, only 16 percent of Oregonians with state-funded employment assistance were working in integrated settings.

Under the settlement, the state agreed to reduce the number of people in sheltered workshops by 20 percent to a maximum of 1,530 over the next two years. The number of hours worked must drop nearly 30 percent to no more than 66,100.

The state agreed to stop using sheltered workshops as a first-choice option for young people leaving school or for adults newly eligible for state-funded employment assistance. Instead, the state will develop individual plans and support systems to help people with disabilities work for traditional employers if they prefer it.

Federal officials have said they’re not trying to close sheltered workshops, but they want to ensure that people who want jobs at traditional worksites have a realistic opportunity to succeed there.

The state also agreed to end a pipeline from public schools to sheltered workshops, which sometimes involved mock workshop activities as part of a special education curriculum, according to federal officials. Young people will now have to receive a career-development plan before leaving school.

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