If you’ve never heard of Olmstead v L.C., you can be forgiven. Unless you have some reason to follow such things, it’s unlikely that the nearly 20-year-old lawsuit has made much of an impression on you.
Olmstead said that government may not make institutionalization its go-to method of dealing with mentally, intellectually and developmentally disabled Americans. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the decision, which was announced on June 22, 1999.
The ban on institutionalization wasn’t complete, however. In her opinion Ginsburg said that treatment professionals needed to decide if community placement is best and that such placement is a reasonable accommodation when balanced against the needs of others with like disabilities. Most important in Oregon in 2017, Ginsburg said community placement is best “only when the individual does not oppose being served in the community.”
That last part is pretty important, in my opinion. It was, I think, ignored by the Obama administration’s Justice Department, and, as a result, it’s being ignored by the state of Oregon today. I worry that unless something changes, too many of the men and women I know with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) face a future that promises not only forced idleness, but the terrible loss of dignity that will go with it.
That’s because in 2009 the Justice Department began using Olmstead as a way to push states to make changes in the way they treat the disabled.
Rhode Island was the first state to cave to federal pressure when it settled an Olmstead-based lawsuit regarding sheltered workshops. Oregon forged a similar settlement in Lane v. Brown, settled in September 2015.
As a result, the state has agreed to cut off all money to such places as Rockwest Training Company, a sheltered workshop — among other things — in Salem, by 2019.
Rockwest got its start after the Fairview Training Center downsized, some 25 years before the Olmstead decision. It serves 120 adults, who do everything from assembling first aid kits to shredding to industrial sewing. It also works with clients who wish to work in the community, providing training and long-term job support.
There’s a part of me that understands the distaste outfits like Disability Rights Oregon have for sheltered workshops. Some are horribly isolating to those who work in them, and many, if not most, pay wages that would embarrass any other employer. It was largely the combination of isolation from the enabled world and low wages that gave rise to Lane v. Kitzhaber, later Lane v. Brown.
I’ll also agree that the state may have relied too much on sheltered workshops, so much so that it failed to do enough to get people with I/DD into regular jobs, if they wanted them. I don’t know if that’s been true historically; I do know that when recession hits, as it did in Oregon in a big way in 2008, the first people employers let go and the last people they hire are those anywhere outside the mainstream.
And, honestly, some of those with I/DD are outside the mainstream.
Yet, according to one study, even without sheltered workshops and their ultra-low wages, many men and women with I/DD are unlikely to make as much as their enabled counterparts do.
I suspect that’s because it may cost an employer more to have a worker with I/DD, at least for some workers. Some may need more close supervision than those in the general workforce, and productivity may be an issue for others. And while employers cannot hold costs down by paying I/DD workers less, they can do so by having them work fewer hours than others.
That’s what one study, done in Maine, has shown. I’ll write about what it found, and what I think it means for Oregon, next week.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821 or firstname.lastname@example.org