Advocates are hoping that a first-of-its-kind lawsuit pitting people with disabilities against several top officials in Oregon could spur a national shift away from sheltered workshops.

A class action lawsuit filed in federal court last week on behalf of 2,300 Oregon residents with developmental disabilities charges that the state is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing supported employment services, which help people with disabilities work in the community.

As a result, the suit indicates that those with disabilities are left with little choice but to toil away in sheltered workshop environments where they earn far less than the state minimum wage of $8.80 per hour.

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Individuals named in the complaint include those with experience working at McDonald’s, Safeway and other mainstream establishments, but who are now stuck at sheltered workshops.

Others like Paula Lane, 48, say they have been asking for help finding jobs in the community for years. Lane said she’s wanted to find competitive employment for more than a decade so that she can afford extras like outings to country music concerts, but today she continues to work on an assembly line alongside others with disabilities where she makes no more than 66 cents per hour, according to the filing.

The lawsuit calls for Oregon to revise its system to emphasize supported employment. Such a move would lead to cost savings, advocates say, citing estimates that show sheltered workshops cost as much as three times more per person than offering assistance at jobs in the community.

“The Americans with Disabilities Act recognizes that discrimination against individuals with disabilities includes intentional segregation and relegation to lesser service jobs,” said Bruce Rubin, a partner at the law firm Miller Nash, who is representing the plaintiffs along with Disability Rights Oregon and United Cerebral Palsy. “This law protects individuals with developmental disabilities, like the named plaintiffs in this lawsuit.”

For their part, Oregon officials told local media that advocates jumped the gun by filing suit. In a statement to the Portland Business Journal, the Oregon Department of Justice said the state is looking to improve services for those with disabilities and had already initiated meetings with stakeholders including the advocacy groups behind the lawsuit.

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