Sometimes, late in the afternoon, when hours of washing dishes or stuffing envelopes seem to drag on forever, Nichole Fisher imagines what life would be like if she had a more fulfilling job in the community.

Fisher, who has spent much of the past decade in workplaces for people with disabilities, pictures herself as a nursing assistant or preschool teacher, and saving enough money to go on a vacation — perhaps to Disney World — with her two teenage children.

"I'm ready to make a fresh start," said Fisher, a resident of West St. Paul who has a mental disability.

Like dozens of her co-workers, Fisher may finally get that opportunity. In recent weeks, state and county workforce officials have quietly introduced an ambitious new project — modeled after a highly successful program in Ohio — to give people with disabilities an alternative to working in "sheltered workshops," cloistered workplaces that pay as little as $2 an hour for mundane jobs such as packing boxes, shredding paper and collecting trash.

The program tests the assumption that people with developmental disabilities prefer the safety and routine of segregated workshops to better-paying jobs in the competitive workplace. If broadened statewide, the program could mark a fundamental shift in Minnesota, giving those who yearn for integrated employment far more control over their lives and career choices.

The voluntary initiative, known as "Way to Work," is driven by a simple concept: That people with disabilities are more likely to find jobs in the general workforce if trained counselors talk to them openly and regularly about their ambitions.

In just six weeks, one in three people who labor at an Eagan workshop operated by ProAct Inc., one of the state's largest workshop operators, have indicated they want jobs in the regular workforce for competitive pay. They are now working with state and county social workers to make that dream a reality.

"This is remarkable," said Megan Zeilinger, an employment planner at Dakota County. "It shows that there are probably hundreds of people at workshops across this state who want jobs in the community, but no one has ever bothered to talk to them."

The project is part of a broader effort by the state to break down barriers to integration for people with disabilities. Once considered a leader in the push for disability rights, Minnesota now has one of the lowest rates of integrated employment in the nation for people with developmental disabilities. An estimated 12,000 Minnesotans with disabilities spend their days in heavily-subsidized and largely segregated workshops, which take advantage of a loophole in federal law that allows them to pay piecework wages that often amount to just pennies an hour.

A Star Tribune investigation last fall found that people in these workshops often long for mainstream jobs and competitive pay, but lack the transportation and other support services that would make that possible.

That could soon change. The U.S. Justice Department has sued two states, Oregon and Rhode Island, for their reliance on segregated workshops. In addition, federal regulators have warned that they may withhold funding from states that fail to move away from shelter-based employment.

'We can do this here'

Recognizing this shift, Minnesota officials have been exploring ways to reduce the state's reliance on workshops, while preserving individual choice and acknowledging that many people in workshops prefer segregated work to mainstream jobs.

"We knew change was coming and that we needed to act quickly," said Kim Peck of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).

In October, the search for alternatives brought state and county officials to the Buckeye State, home to one of the nation's most far-reaching initiatives to desegregate employment for people with disabilities.

Three years ago, Gov. John Kasich ordered that community employment be the "preferred outcome" for all working-age Ohioans with disabilities. Since then, the state has sent two dozen job counselors into sheltered workshops all over the state to engage individual workers in conversations about the transition to competitive work. The state has also redirected millions of Medicaid dollars toward job coaching, transportation, and other work supports.

So far, 650 Ohioans with disabilities have found jobs in the regular workforce, while another 2,200 have crafted individual plans for moving into mainstream work. Ohio now boasts one of the highest rates of integrated employment, with 24 percent of adults who receive state services working in the community. By comparison, Minnesota's rate of integrated employment has hovered around 13 percent, among the nation's lowest.

At a racetrack and casino on the edge of Columbus, the Minnesota officials met with several workers with disabilities who had moved from segregated facilities to regular jobs as cooks and servers, including one employee who bought a home and got engaged.

"We came back from [Ohio] very, very excited and said, `We can do this here,' " said Abbie Wells-Herzog, a vocational rehab specialist with DEED.

Minnesota officials decided to start modestly, working with Dakota County and embedding two full-time vocational counselors at ProAct's expansive facility in Eagan. As of Friday, about 50 of the 150 people who work in ProAct's workshop in Eagan and mobile work crews have expressed interest in finding work outside the facility.

"Our hope is this program can be done on a large scale," said Steve Ditschler, ProAct's president and chief executive.

Now comes the hard part: Finding these workers actual jobs and lining up services so they can succeed. That requires creative thinking and employers willing to focus on workers' "strengths, abilities and interests, and not just their deficits," Wells-Herzog said.

Fisher is hopeful. In her nearly 10 years at ProAct, she has performed just about every job imaginable, from packaging fishing lures to operating a shrink-wrap machine. Most days, she busses tables and washes dishes at a local Panera Bread restaurant as part of a mobile work crew. On the long bus ride home, she scans the scenery outside her window for "help wanted" signs.

"I can do it all," Fisher said, grinning widely as she waited for her bus. "It's a challenge, really, to take what comes your way, and I'm always up for new challenges."

Chris Serres • 612-673-4308

Twitter: @chrisserres