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Posted 04 Aug 2021

Paying Disabled People Less Than The Minimum Wage: The Next Frontier For Disability Activism

In the disability community, we recently celebrated Disability Pride and the anniversary of the ADA (the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). The ADA is a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against disabled individuals in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The purpose of the law was to make disability a protected category under discrimination rules bringing it in line with sex, race, age and religion.

It should be noted that this law did not just appear because politicians felt compelled to do the right thing, it was the result of a long and hard fight on the part of disabled activists and their allies, as was documented so powerfully in the Netflix film Crip Camp, which I can highly recommend watching.

As with any type of systemic oppression where a marginalized group has been disenfranchised, it was necessary to make the privileged majority uncomfortable in order to get their attention. When political leaders start to look bad in front of the voting public and the mainstream narrative starts to turn against them, only then it seems do we get a sudden moral awakening and new laws are created.

With all of that momentous history now acknowledged, today I would actually like to look forward instead of backward at the current struggle against one law in particular that continues to discriminate against and devalue the contribution of disabled people.

Stealing Self Worth

Currently in 2021, we know that despite the gains of the ADA forty years ago, hundreds of thousands of disabled Americans are earning a subminimum wage, averaging a shocking $3.34 an hour versus the federal standard of $7.25, which many would also argue is far from a liveable wage.

I spoke with founder of Deaf/disabled talent management company C Talent, Keely Cat-Wells, and Disability Rights Activist and C.E.O, Sara Hart Weir, who are partnering with organizations like Creative Spirit to call for the end of this discriminatory practice.

I wanted to find out more about their work and experiences so I started by asking them about the sorts of workplaces that are taking advantage of this wage loophole and how the law came about. They told me:

“The outdated business model for sheltered workshops was an outgrowth of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 which is a Depression-Era standard that people with disabilities could get compensated pennies an hour to work in a segregated work environment. This 1938 statute, called Section 14(c), has not been amended in over eighty years. 

Today, there are approximately 321,1314 Americans with disabilities who, even while living in the community, still earn subminimum wages in segregated sheltered workshops. In these workshops, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities perform mostly rote and repetitive manual tasks, and according to the Government Accountability Office less than approximately 5% of individuals in a sheltered workshop ever leave these settings for competitive integrated employment.”

What we are seeing here is a completely segregated work environment where businesses are building their profits on the backs of a workforce that has little choice but to accept an inadequate wage. These were the arguments used to justify cutting UK government spending on workshops for disabled people a few years ago. Any disabled person who finds themselves in a job like this it will undoubtedly have their confidence and mental health affected, but not because of the supportive environment but because of the poor pay.

A Stepping Stone or A Trap?

The historic pushback for those who try to raise concerns about this discriminatory practice is that these employers are providing an opportunity for people who may otherwise never be able to work and that maybe they can use their experience in a sheltered workshop to establish themselves in a career or find a validating occupation for their time. As we have already heard the amount of people who move on to better positions is only 5% and for the remaining 95%, we need to reconsider the way we are looking at working as the only definition of success in our society. Amongst that 95% may be people who actually do not desire to work and should be better supported by the government rather than coerced into a position where their labor has been devalued. For all the others true inclusion in communities and the workplace should be the aim. Speaking again with Cat-Wells and Weir they agreed, saying that:

“individuals with disabilities are some of the most caring, compassionate, and capable people out there, and to say that the best they can do is sit and complete repetitive tasks for the rest of their lives is severely underestimating their full potential. Inclusion in the classroom coupled with an educational foundation and access to skill development, people with disabilities can be successfully and beneficially integrated into countless jobs in our country.”

I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly and in fact it has been the basis of my career both academic and professional.

A Movement for Progress Is Forming

As with the ADA, without disabled activists and their allies continuing to shout loudly and stand up for what is right nothing is likely to change. But this work is hard and not without personal risk so I asked the two women to tell me what had compelled them to start this movement. Cat-Wells told me that she had become disabled at age 17 and had a perspective shift, she said:

“I very quickly realized that the world around me was no longer made with me in mind, When I moved from the UK to Los Angeles I lost a job due to the ableism in the entertainment industry, quickly noticing this was not an isolated issue, I founded C Talent, a talent management company that represents high profile Deaf & Disabled talent. I found out about 14(c) in August 2020, as someone who has been in the community and industry for a while I was shocked, this is an 80+ year old law that still to this day paints disabled people as second-class citizens. April this year, my company released an open letter asking all major motion picture companies to hire a Disability Officer. Sara saw our movement and got in touch. I do not have a political background but will do whatever it takes to get rid of discriminatory laws. I look forward to a world where we can have true equity, and disabled people are valued and respected both in society and the eyes of the law.”

For Weir who has worked for 20 years in the disability community, she was motivated to get more involved by her friendship with a woman named Kasey for whom she provided disability support. She says:

“I quickly learned through my friendship with Kasey the inequities and discrimination that people with disabilities face day in and day out. I eventually went to work for the National Down Syndrome Society (served as the President & CEO) and led the bipartisan effort to pass the ABLE Act, which finally allowed people with disabilities to save money for their future. Through my work, I worked with almost every state, including my home state of Kansas, to help set up these life-changing programs through State Treasurer’s Offices. I know we can’t stop at savings for people with disabilities – the next frontier is true inclusion in employment. As long as we have an outdated law like paying people with disabilities subminimum wage on the books, we won’t be able to fully realize the contributions people with disabilities can make in the workplace.

 I am so glad that the disability rights movement has these bold, ambitious women at its helm, it gives me enormous hope that change can and will come. We need to reconsider the infantilising narrative that a disabled person is “lucky” simply to have a job and remember that celebrating disability pride is about stepping into our power and realizing our worth. If a job is of benefit to an employer then it is deserving of a fair wage.