Hello, my name is Sheila Leigland and my husband’s name is Harold. We live in Great Falls, Montana and have been married for thirty years. We both have attended college and have bachelor’s degrees. My degree is in music education, and Harold’s degree is in social science with an extended minor in psychology. We have raised one child, and my husband worked as a massage therapist for over thirty-five years. We are active in our church and are members of the National Federation of the Blind. Two years ago, we had the privilege of participating in the Rock Center piece and speaking at the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind on the issue of subminimum wages.
We wanted to make extra money to help make ends meet, so we both tried to find work and were eventually placed in a sheltered workshop. We both started working in 2009. I was told that eventually we would make minimum wage, which turned out not to be even close to the truth. Disabled workers are forced to take timed productivity tests every six months so that wages can be reevaluated. Because of the timed-test method, wages fluctuate wildly. It is pretty hard to set up any sort of budget when you never know how much you will be making from month to month.
In February of this year, Harold was up for another timed-test evaluation. We were very concerned because a committee met to discuss changes in the format of the timed test. It turned out that Harold’s test was extremely long. In the past, the tests took thirty minutes to an hour, but this one took four hours on the first day and fifty minutes on the day of his next shift. Harold was to place five toys in a bag and divide them as objects that were alike in some way. Sounds easy, right? No, it wasn’t easy at all! Many of the items weren’t identifiable by touch, and many of the features that would help with their correct placement were exclusively visual. Harold and I are both blind. Even some people with perfect vision had difficulty with the task, so they resorted to sorting the items by color, which of course Harold could not do.
As I said, both Harold and I are college-educated adults. There are many jobs that Harold can do, but he was deliberately assigned a task that would be difficult or impossible for him and then timed on how quickly he could do it. Rather than placing Harold in a job that matched his skills and interests, the sheltered workshop appears to have set him up to fail so that he could be paid a lower wage.
When my husband came home from work, I knew that the test had not gone well because he told me that he didn’t want to talk about it. I told him that we would work through this together. When we finally talked about it, I found myself talking with a person who was demoralized and felt that he was letting me down. It wasn’t true, but it is hard to accept that you are a capable adult when you are still being treated like a child. It broke my heart to see the man I love in such pain.
I knew that the test had not gone well, but I wasn’t prepared for Harold to be set back to a wage of $2.75 per hour. His previous wage was $7.61 per hour. He is angry and humiliated. I am so angry that it is legal to discriminate against people just because of blindness, or for that matter any disability. It makes me sick that so little is expected of us, and we are treated like children. In fact, I know children that get more money as an allowance than my husband receives in his paycheck.
It is a tragedy that there are people who claim to be advocates for people with disabilities but believe that this is okay. There are people with disabilities who believe that they can do no better because the agencies who exploit them have repeatedly told them and their families that subminimum wages are all they can or should expect. In truth, they are victims not of their disabilities, but of the low expectations held by their employers and society.
I want to see Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act abolished. I strongly encourage our members of Congress in the House of Representatives to support H.R. 188, which would phase out this law over a three year period. I also want to see a similar bill introduced in the United States Senate.
We can’t do this alone.
We need your help to get this accomplished. I thank you in advance for your help in this important matter. Section 14(c) is immoral and discriminatory. All that we are asking for is fair treatment. We need and want to be awarded first class citizenship in our own country and this includes making a fair wage. Please, help us live the lives that we want to live.