See more of the story

Nineteen years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling opened the doors to integration, thousands of Minnesotans with disabilities continue to live and work in segregated settings that keep them in poverty and limit their daily autonomy.

These are among the principal findings of the state’s first comprehensive survey examining the quality of life of nearly 50,000 Minnesotans with physical, intellectual and developmental disabilities who spend most of their time in settings such as group homes, nursing facilities and cloistered workplaces known as sheltered workshops.

The survey, released this week, also found wide earnings gaps for Minnesotans with disabilities. People who labor in sheltered workshops and day training programs earned just $3.30 to $3.50 an hour, on average — less than half the earnings of those who worked in more-integrated settings in the community.

People in sheltered workshops were also more isolated socially, mostly limiting their daily interactions to other individuals with disabilities, the survey found.

The findings echo those of a 2015 special report by the Star Tribune, which found that Minnesota is among the most segregated states in the nation for working people with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome and autism. The series also found that hundreds of people with disabilities are being sent, sometimes against their will, to state-licensed group homes where they live with strangers in settings far from home.

Disability advocates said the survey findings suggest that Minnesota needs to take more aggressive steps to reduce segregation, to improve access to community services for people with disabilities, and to comply with a landmark 1999 Supreme Court ruling, known as the Olmstead decision, which requires states to ensure that people live and work in the most integrated settings possible.

“This shows how deeply marginalized so many people with disabilities are in our state, and that we are less integrated than we thought,” said Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.

Acting human services Commissioner Chuck Johnson, whose agency oversees state-financed programs for people with disabilities, said in a statement, “We are concerned that many Minnesotans with disabilities lead segregated lives and will continue work already underway — planning with people to support them in reaching their goals, developing new employment services to help people with disabilities work in competitive jobs and creating new supports for independent living.”

In 2015, the Dayton administration began to implement a detailed blueprint, known as an “Olmstead plan,” for reducing segregation and improving community services for people with disabilities. The plan called for moving about 20,000 people with disabilities into the mainstream labor force by 2020 and to transition another 5,500 people from segregated residential settings, such as group homes, into their own housing in the community.

Yet from the beginning, state officials insisted the project aimed at more than hitting numeric goals. They also wanted to measure the quality of life of people with disabilities over time, including their level of integration into the community and their sense of autonomy over their own decision-making.

The survey project, commissioned by a subcabinet appointed by Dayton, proved monumental in scope. Between February and November of last year, researchers sent nearly 20,000 letters, made 33,000 phone calls and drove more than 150,000 miles — ultimately interviewing 2,005 people statewide who live and work in segregated settings.

“On a human level, this [survey] was a huge step forward,” Opheim said. “We never sat and asked people with disabilities in a comprehensive way, what is the quality of their life? This becomes a critical baseline for measuring future improvement.”

The survey measured, for instance, the number of times that people with disabilities engaged in activities outside their segregated homes or workplaces — activities such as visits with friends, relatives and neighbors and trips to grocery stores, restaurants or sports events. Respondents said they made 32 outings per month, compared with 46 per month among the general population.

The study also sought to determine their level of integration into the general workforce. The study found that just 7.5 percent had competitive jobs in the community, while 10.7 percent worked in integrated jobs with employment supports. By comparison, 41 percent worked in segregated workshops or job crews composed of other people with disabilities, known as “enclaves.”

Overall, researchers found that the more segregated the setting, the lower the earnings. Those who reported earnings from day training programs and sheltered workshops made $39 and $63 a week, respectively, compared with $146 for those who held jobs in the community. The reason stems from a loophole in federal labor law allowing many sheltered workshops to pay employees on a “piecework” basis that often amounts to just pennies an hour.

“We should be outraged,” said James Conroy, a medical sociologist from Havertown, Pa., and a consultant on the study. “People living in the richest country on earth should not be making $3.50 an hour. We can do better.”

David Johnson, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, said the findings reveal an urgent need for more independent housing, transportation and vocational training for people with disabilities.

“We still have too many people going from one segregated setting to another,” Johnson said. “To turn that around and do something different will be very, very difficult.”

At the same time, researchers found that people with disabilities in Minnesota still had a diverse and healthy number of close relationships. All told, 61 percent of respondents said they had at least five close relationships. Only 43 of the 2,005 people surveyed reported having no relationships. The findings, Conroy said, suggest that people in segregated settings may be less socially isolated than they seem.

State officials said they hope to repeat the survey each year to measure changes.

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308 Twitter: @chrisserres