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Oregon warned of violations of federal disabilities act

SALEM – The federal government has warned the state of Oregon that too many people with disabilities are segregated in “sheltered workshops,” doing rote work for low pay in institutional or industrial settings.

A letter from the U.S. Justice Department warns the state that it’s violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and faces court action, the Oregonian reported Tuesday.

The law requires states to provide services to people with disabilities in settings integrated into the wider community as much as possible.

But investigators found that the majority of intellectually or developmentally disabled workers did repetitive tasks such as folding, sorting and bagging alongside other people with disabilities, said the letter from Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

The settings for the workshops were described as “institutional in nature,” with little natural light.

The nine-month investigation found that more than half the workers earned less than $3 an hour, with the average at $3.72.

The state spends $30 million a year on sheltered workshops for people with disabilities.

In March, according to state data, 1,642 people worked in sheltered workshops. By contrast, 422 workers were employed in the community with support, such as job coaching or help navigating the bus system.

Erinn Kelley-Siel, director of the Department of Human Services, said she was disappointed by the Justice Department’s findings and her agency is at work on improving vocational services.

Advocates for the disabled said the investigation should lead the state to settle a class-action suit brought in January.

“This is just a giant stick over the head of the state to settle our lawsuit,” said Michael Bailey of Portland, who serves as president of the National Disability Rights Network.

The Justice Department’s letter urges the state to move swiftly to improve its programs.


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Then and Now: Comstock Park

James M. Comstock, born in 1838 in Wisconsin, arrived in Spokane in time to witness the great fire of 1889 and start Spokane Dry Goods with Robert Paterson. It became the Crescent, Spokane’s premier department store for a century. He also worked in real estate and owned other businesses. He served a term as Spokane mayor, starting in 1899. James Comstock died in 1918.