Shout Out to the Forgotten Laborers

A protest with blind protesters holding signs that say "Vote No on Subminimum Wages" and "Do You Support Equality or Exploitation?"

Shout Out to the Forgotten Laborers

Every year, especially around Labor Day, we hear reports about the status of our economy and employment. National news outlets like the Washington Post report that the unemployment rate is 3.6 percent, the lowest rate since 1969. However, while reporting on the success of the nation, the media can ignore groups of people that continue to face barriers to employment, especially people with disabilities.

Today, nearly 70 percent of people with disabilities do not have jobs and rely on government assistance. This forces them to remain in poverty. Meanwhile, outdated employment policies that repeatedly fail to prepare workers with disabilities for jobs in the twenty-first century workforce are allowed to remain in effect. 

Take for instance the Javits-Wagner-O'Day Act (JWOD), today called the AbilityOne program, which creates employment opportunities for people with disabilities through specialized non-competitive government contracts. Under this program, people with disabilities are taught to perform menial, repetitive tasks, which do nothing to equip them with the skills needed to succeed and advance in a modern workplace. As a result, these workers remain in low paying jobs for decades. Furthermore, the AbilityOne program incentivizes the exclusion of people with disabilities from advancement to administrative, managerial, or supervisory positions. While media outlets demand a "livable wage" for workers, we hear no outrage about the workplace conditions or people with disabilities employed under the AbilityOne program.

This brings me to another archaic and discriminatory law that members of the National Federation of the Blind have fought against since 1940. Under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), employers can obtain special wage certificates from the U.S. Secretary of Labor in order to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. While Congress enacted the FLSA to guarantee that all workers earn a "fair day's pay for a fair day's work," Section 14(c) appears to allow employers to exclude people with disabilities from the meaning of "all workers." Today's media seems to tolerate the idea that federal law creates a second-class workforce made up of people with disabilities.

Until people with disabilities receive the same treatment from employers, members of the NFB will continue to raise expectations for blind people, because we know that low expectations create barriers between blind people and our dreams.

Our advocates know that the AbilityOne program and Section 14(c) create employment barriers between blind people and their dreams of being self-sufficient and live independently. For this reason, we support the passage of the Disability Employment Act, which will create an Employment Integration Trust Fund to assist employers to meet reasonable accommodation requirements under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, will honor the Randolph-Sheppard Priority for all military dining contracts, and will restructure the AbilityOne Commission and the way it awards government contracts. We also support the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act (H.R. 873/S. 260), which will phase out Section 14(c) over six years while providing technical assistance grants to states and individual providers to assist with transforming away from using special wage certificates. Through our advocacy efforts, the NFB looks forward to the day when all workers receive equal employment opportunities. 

—Kimie Eacobacci