Last month, we and millions of others across the country celebrated National Developmental 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, the Fairview Training Center in Salem – the largest facility of its kind in the nation – closed its doors. It hosted thousands of people with disabilities. The data showed high levels of abuse and neglect. Residents were not allowed to leave unless they were first sterilized. Fairview housed babies, children, adults and the elderly and was the only mandate service available to individuals and their families.
That change didn’t happen overnight. Oregon had worked since 1987 to shut down institutions and establish community support systems for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The closure of Fairview presented a new challenge – a waiting list of more than 7,000 Oregonians with intellectual and developmental disabilities who needed support services to live in their own homes, with family or friends, and fully participate in community life. DRO filed a lawsuit against the state, Staley v. Kitzhaber, demanding that anyone eligible for Medicaid-funded community assistance provide it quickly.
A decade ago in June of this year, the terms of the Staley settlement were implemented. Today, anyone with a mental or developmental disability in Oregon is entitled to in-home assistance through the “brokerage” service system created by the Staley case.
With the conclusion of this shameful chapter in our state’s history, Oregon pioneered 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 area.”
Since then, Oregon has once again been the national leader in community job creation for workers with 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 higher than the national average (20%), according to data released in February 2020.
The foundation for this advance was laid in 2012 when workers with disabilities opposed the idea that it was okay to keep them isolated in “sheltered workshops” and pay them far less than the minimum wage. Disability Rights Oregon filed the US’s first class action lawsuit (Lane v. Brown) to challenge sheltered workshops that pay below average wages. The case was settled years later and Oregon’s robust Employment First program was created to help people find jobs in the community.
Then, in 2019, Oregon passed laws to phase out the minimum wage and put us on the forefront of ending the minimum wage. Congress is currently seen as a wage increase law that would end the minimum wage for tipped workers and people with disabilities nationally.
Much remains to be done. The school is one of the first places where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities experience segregation and isolation. Hundreds of children in Oregon today do not attend full school days for months or even years. We fight in court to ensure that children with disabilities get the support they need for a full day of school.
It’s worth noting that if you were a person with a mental and developmental disability, Oregon was once a place where your fate was institutional life. Today Oregon is a dramatically different place. More and more of our friends, family members and neighbors who have a disability have the opportunity to build the life they want.
It should be so.
Jake Cornett is the managing director of Disability Rights Oregon.