Blog Date: 
Monday, March 10, 2014
Jessica Wichmann

On Sunday, March 9, the New York Times published “The Boys in the Bunkhouse,” which tells the story, in excruciating and horrific detail, of the men who worked for Henry’s Turkey Service in Atalissa, Iowa. The article largely speaks for itself, and raises a critical question: how could this happen? But the article does not provide the answer, at least not directly, so we will make the attempt. History teaches that whenever any group of human beings is viewed as inferior and marked for different treatment, that group becomes subject to exploitation and abuse. This is true even if the badge of inferiority was not necessarily intended to lead to that result. In 1938, Congress created a separate system of employment for people with disabilities, a system which is not subject to the minimum wage and other labor protections that non-disabled American workers enjoy. This system was created out of a belief that disabled workers were not as productive as other workers and would not be given the opportunity to work at all unless their employers were exempted from the normal rules. The intent was compassionate, but workers with disabilities were clearly marked as inferior to others. When we believe our fellow human beings to be inferior, we lay the groundwork for slowly and inexorably stripping them of their very humanity. That is what happened to the men of Henry’s Turkey Service. They were called boys even though they were men; their self-determination and free will were stripped from them; and as the eyes of the people of Atalissa and the world withdrew, the so-called “boys” were isolated, punished in ever-more-frightening ways for even minor perceived infractions, and forced to live in conditions unfit for animals. And this was all done to them by people who claimed, and still have the nerve to claim, to love them. What happened in Atalissa does not happen in every sheltered workshop in quite the same horrific way, but it is the ultimate, logical outcome of marking American workers with disabilities as inferior. That is why nothing less than the abolition of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act can redeem the suffering of the men of Atalissa and correct the injustice being done to all American workers with disabilities who toil under special wage certificates. No mediocre half-measure will do. To deny workers with disabilities the same labor protections as everyone else is to deny their humanity. 


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