Last month, we joined millions of others across the country in celebrating National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month by reflecting on the milestones in our fight for equality that have brought us closer to where we are today.

Twenty-one years ago on March 1, 2000, Fairview Training Center in Salem — the largest institution of its kind in the nation — closed its doors. It housed thousands of individuals with disabilities. Data showed high levels of abuse and neglect. Residents were not permitted to leave unless they were first sterilized. Housing babies, children, adults and the elderly, Fairview was the only mandated service available for individuals and their families.

This change didn’t happen overnight. Oregon had been working on closing institutions and building community support systems for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities since 1987.

Fairview’s closure created a new challenge — a wait list of more than 7,000 Oregonians with intellectual and developmental disabilities who needed support services to live in their own home or with family or friends and to fully participate in community life. DRO filed a lawsuit against the state, Staley v. Kitzhaber, asking that any person who was eligible for Medicaid-funded community supports be provided them swiftly.

A decade ago this June, the terms of the Staley settlement were implemented. Today, every individual with an intellectual or developmental disability in Oregon is eligible to receive in-home supports because of the “brokerage” service system the Staley case helped to create.

In closing this shameful chapter in our state’s history, Oregon became a pioneer in this facet of the disability rights movement. In 2012, the National Council on Disability highlighted Oregon’s success in deinstitutionalization, writing, “Oregon is a national leader in this field.”

Since then, Oregon has again been leading the way nationally in creating community jobs for workers who experience intellectual and developmental disabilities. The percentage of workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Oregon who work in integrated employment (57%) is nearly three times greater than the national average (20%), according to data released in February 2020.

The groundwork for this progress was laid in 2012, when workers with disabilities fought back against the idea that it was OK to keep them isolated in “sheltered workshops” and pay them far less than minimum wage. Disability Rights Oregon filed the first U.S. class action lawsuit (Lane v. Brown) to challenge sheltered workshops that pay subminimum wages. The case settled years later, creating Oregon’s robust Employment First program that allows people to find community jobs.

Then, in 2019, Oregon passed legislation to phase out the subminimum wage, putting us at the forefront of ending the subminimum wage. Congress is currently considered the Raise the Wage Act that would end subminimum wage for tipped workers and people with disabilities nationally.

Substantial work remains. School is one of the first places that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities experience segregation and isolation. Today, hundreds of Oregon children don’t attend full days of school for months or even years at a time. We’re fighting in the courts for children with disabilities to receive the supports they need to attend a full day of school.

It’s worth remembering that Oregon was once a place where if you were a person with an intellectual and developmental disability, your destiny was institutional life. Today, Oregon is a dramatically different place. More and more of our friends, family members and neighbors who experience a disability have the opportunity to build the life that they want for themselves.

That’s as it should be.


Jake Cornett is the executive director of Disability Rights Oregon.

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