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Closure of workshops brings mixed emotions

More developmentally disabled people are finding jobs out in the community, but the phase-out of centers and workshops where people met with their friends is bringing mixed emotions.

Executive orders from the Oregon governor's desk and the recent settlement of a statewide lawsuit mean organizations are shutting down or changing facilities where developmentally disabled people are segregated from the wider community.

Most organizations have already made substantial steps to comply with Oregon's Employment First model.

In 2010, Medford-based Pathway Enterprises, Inc. shut down an Ashland alternative-to-work center where developmentally disabled people played board games, read books, socialized with friends and went on outings to places such as Lithia Park and Rogue Valley Mall, said Becky Simpson, chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization.

Pathway Enterprises is now more focused on helping people work out in the community, she said.

"There was a range of opinions," she said about the closure of the center. "Some people said, 'That's awesome! I want to get a job. I'm excited. I want to make money.' The most negative reaction was sadness about not seeing their friends every day."

Pathway Enterprises has encouraged people to continue meeting the friends they made at the center at coffee shops or other places in the community, she said.

The most negative impact has been on people with a combination of severe physical and developmental disabilities, who may have a harder time getting a job, Simpson said.

She said a blind autistic man was one of those most hard hit by the closure of the center.

"It was his routine, and his friends were there. He had his buddies around him," Simpson said.

As a work alternative, Pathway Enterprises offers classes on subjects ranging from sign language to independent living skills.

"There are a lot of opportunities for people to come to class and see their friends and be learning," Simpson said.

The state has called on organizations to phase out so-called sheltered workshops, where developmentally disabled people work together.

There is also a push for all people to earn at least minimum wage, rather than what is known as a productivity rate. A person who, for example, performs a task at 70 percent of the speed of a set standard can be paid 70 percent of the standard wage.

"It didn't make sense to say we respect people with disabilities but we pay them less than minimum wage," Simpson said.

On the other hand, paying less than minimum wage allowed organizations to employ more people, she said.

Around the state, Simpson said some organizations are having to lay off people.

She said that breaks the hearts of organizational leaders.

"I've had chief executive officers tell me, 'I've had people who have worked for this company for 20 years and now I have to tell them they're laid off,' " Simpson said.

Pathway Enterprises is working to get the word out that people with developmental disabilities make valuable employees.

"It's important that we embrace all members of the community," Simpson said. "People with disabilities can bring a lot to your business."

Southern Oregon Aspire, which serves people in Jackson and Josephine counties, is already complying with state requirements on a number of fronts, including helping with job placement at businesses.

It also runs recycling and electronics recycling facilities with developmentally disabled employees. Those facilities may have to change because of state requirements on integrated work.

"Some people feel excited about working in the community," said Allen Cress, chief executive officer of the Grants Pass-headquartered organization. "Some have felt isolated and treated differently because they haven't been commonly accepted in the community. They want to be adults just like everyone else. Some don't ever want to leave that workshop setting. We see a full range of emotions."

Cress said the recycling and electronics recycling facilities won't have to close down immediately, but he's not sure what they will look like in the future.

Southern Oregon Aspire custodial and landscape maintenance crews are not threatened by the changes because they are already integrated with developmentally disabled and non-developmentally disabled employees working side by side at businesses and government buildings, he said.

The recycling and electronics recycling facilities may need to have a more fully integrated workforce, Cress said.

Meanwhile, Southern Oregon Aspire is continuing to work with businesses to identify jobs that benefit both the business and developmentally disabled workers, he said.

Despite challenges that must be overcome, Cress said he fully supports efforts to integrate the workforce.

"My personal sentiment is it's fantastic," he said. "People have felt marginalized by society. It makes me sad. These people bring value to our world. This is a great thing, not just for agencies like Southern Oregon Aspire, but for the people we serve and the community. The community will win."

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.