Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities

Blog Date: 
Wednesday, April 3, 2013

From the 2012 Annual Report of the National Federation of the Blind

The National Federation of the Blind is, at its core, a grassroots civil rights movement consisting of blind people, our family members, and friends. Our movement is founded on the principles of equality and full participation of blind people in every aspect of society. Although we have made significant strides toward achieving equality of opportunity, many barriers to our full participation as American citizens continue to exist. Most notable are the barriers that blind people face in our efforts to obtain competitive, integrated employment. Although laws prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in employment are in place, ignorance about the true employment capacity of the blind, lack of awareness about assistive work technologies among employers, the deficiency of proper educational and training opportunities for blind workers, and the overwhelmingly low vocational expectations for the blind held by society all contribute to an unemployment rate of over 70 percent for working age blind adults. Members of the NFB accept the responsibility and welcome the opportunity to play a part in developing strategies to address all of these issues effectively, but our ability to be successful is significantly hindered when we are denied the same fundamental rights as every other American citizen.

In 1938, policymakers, acting on a laudable but misdirected desire to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, implemented Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a provision that authorizes the U.S. Department of Labor to issue Special Wage Certificates to employers, permitting them to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. As a result of the erroneous belief, commonly held in 1938 but long since disproved, that people with disabilities cannot be productive employees, employers are permitted to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages that are supposedly based on their productivity. This denial of fundamental wage protections to workers with disabilities, although masked as a compassionate offering of a work opportunity that would otherwise not be available, leaves over 300,000 people with disabilities employed at subminimum wages, some as low as three cents per hour.  
 
Members of the National Federation of the Blind are faced with over seventy years of institutionalized thinking that people with disabilities lack the ability to fully participate in the workplace, and we fight every day to demonstrate to the world that blind people have capacity.  Because we have dared to believe in ourselves, today there are blind lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, members of the clergy, automobile mechanics, computer programmers, farmers, and more. The truth is that there are any number of jobs that match the unique skills, talents, interests and abilities of people with even the most significant disabilities.  Moreover, assistive technology exists that allows people with disabilities to perform job tasks with the quality and efficiency of non-disabled employees.  Although the diversity of jobs and the availability of assistive technology have made it possible for individuals with all disabilities to be productive employees, society’s negative attitudes and low expectations continue to severely limit opportunities for competitive employment. And as long as it remains legal to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage, there will be those who exploit these misconceptions in order to justify employing workers with disabilities at subminimum wages, leaving hundreds of thousands of individuals in segregated work environments that are separate and unequal.
 
Despite research demonstrating that segregated, subminimum wage work environments teach workers with disabilities obsolete skills and unproductive work habits that must be unlearned in order for them to become competitively employed, along with well-documented cases of subminimum wage employees working in poor conditions that are not acceptable in any modern workplace, advocates of Special Wage Certificates argue that the answer is simply better enforcement of compliance with current federal and state rules. But perpetuation of the current system is acquiescence in the face of discrimination. Slavery, the denial of the right to vote for women, and other forms of discrimination against classes of individuals based solely on a characteristic that the individuals possessed were once lawful. Society eventually realized that the only way to eliminate such discrimination is to make it unlawful. Section 14(c) of the FLSA, enacted out of ignorance about the true capacity of people with disabilities, is fundamentally morally wrong. The only way to correct this injustice is to repeal this discriminatory provision.  
 
In 2012, the National Federation of the Blind made significant progress toward achieving this goal. What started as our single voice calling to have the law changed has grown into a chorus of fifty organizations of people with disabilities making this demand. Eliminating subminimum wages was not part of the conversation about disability rights before we began to speak out, but by the end of 2012 the National Council on Disability, a federal agency that advises Congress and the President on disability issues, had issued a report recommending that subminimum wages be phased out. 
 
We are the voice of the nation’s blind, and we will use our voice to speak out against people, policies, or programs that seek to exploit us or reduce us to a status of second class citizenship. We look forward to a day when all Americans have wage security, real opportunity, and true equality. Add your voice to ours by signing our online petition at: http://www.nfb.org/fair-wages-petition.  
 
For more information on this important issue, please visit www.nfb.org/fair-wages.