With Race and Disability, What is Fair and Right, is Fair and Right for All

Blog Date: 
Friday, February 28, 2014
By Anil Lewis 
I rarely take time to watch television, but during Black History Month, I immersed myself in black films.  As a member of a family led by a widowed mother who supported her family of four children primarily as a domestic worker, I watched The Help and was reminded how much my mom’s subsequent job as a clerk at the United States Post Office drastically changed our lives.   One of the few memories of my father is that he served in the United States Army, so I watched A Soldier’s Story, and I wondered which, if either, of the characters was most like my dad.  I watched them old and new, from A Cabin in the Sky to 12 Years a Slave, acknowledging that the opportunities afforded the actors of the former were forged out of the struggle depicted by the characters in the latter.  I am reminded of how far we have come and how far we still have to go.  I try not to take the sacrifices of Freedom Fighters (civil rights activists) for granted as I enjoy freedoms and opportunities denied others based simply on the characteristic of race.  I understand in a real way that whether it is race, gender, or any other characteristic used to make one group of people seem less valuable than another, we are all limited when we tolerate discrimination.  The systemic change we need to effect in order to eliminate discrimination pivots on the small, but poignant epiphany expressed in the movie 12 Years a Slave, “What is fair and right, is fair and right for all.”  
 
My brother became blind at an early age due to Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), and was not provided appropriate education, training, or employment opportunities.  This was not fair.  My loving mother (may she rest in peace), a widowed mother of four, relied on the misguided advice of professionals, and my brother was eventually placed in a sheltered, segregated,  subminimum wage work environment that robbed him of his ambition and desire.  This was not right.  His outcome could have been, and should have been, a different one.  Both my presence and my oldest sister’s presence is a testimony to that fact.  Although both my older sister and I eventually became blind due to RP, we were able to receive a quality education and training, which is fair and right for all.  My sister is gainfully employed as a supervisor for the General Services Administration (GSA), and I am currently employed as the director of advocacy and policy for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), where I lead our efforts to repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the discriminatory policy that sustains the system leading to the sheltered, segregated, subminimum wage workshops that prohibited my brother from reaching his full potential.  
 
President Obama recently announced a program called My Brother’s Keeper, which is a “focused effort on boys and young men of color who are having a particularly tough time.”  As a black male I realize the challenges faced as a result of racial discrimination, and I look forward to being a part of this initiative; but as a blind black male, I realize the exponential challenge of being a member of a disenfranchised population within a disenfranchised population.  Some of the strategies I used to overcome racial barriers have been successful in assisting me overcome the compassionate discrimination I face as a person with a disability.  However, many of the challenges and solutions are unique to my existence as a blind person.  I realize that the president’s focus on My Brother’s Keeper is addressing the unique challenges and solutions for young men of color, but it is equally important to recognize that by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century, in this country, are people with disabilities, and some of the same problems and solutions apply.
 
In his announcement of the new initiative, the president acknowledges a natural support system that has enabled me and others to be successful.  “I had people who encouraged me, not just my mom and grandparents, but wonderful teachers and community leaders. And they pushed me to work hard and study hard and make the most of myself…They never gave up on me, and so I didn't give up on myself…I firmly believe that every child deserves the same chances that I had.”
 
The president indirectly, but effectively, describes the plight of workers with disabilities when he states, “The plain fact is, there are some Americans who in the aggregate are consistently doing worse in our society. Groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique way that require unique solutions, groups who have seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations.”
 
Specifically, as a result of the antiquated Section 14(c) model, there are over four-hundred thousand people with disabilities currently working for wages less than the federal minimum wage. Approximately two-hundred thousand of these people are paid less than half of it, and approximately one-hundred thousand are paid less than one dollar per hour.  33 percent of students with significant disabilities are being prepared for segregated subminimum-wage employment rather than competitive integrated work. The demonstrated outcome is that fewer than 5 percent of these people will transition into competitive integrated employment (work in a non-segregated environment at the federal minimum wage or higher). Therefore, 95 percent of these people will spend their entire working lives in a segregated subminimum-wage environment performing tedious, sometimes disgusting tasks promoted as work.  As the president states, “And the worst part is, we've become numb to these statistics. We're not surprised by them. We take them as the norm. We just assume this is an inevitable part of American life, instead of the outrage that it is… But these statistics should break our hearts, and they should compel us to act.”
 
Again, I realize President Obama is focusing on young black males in his comments, but I challenge you to read or listen to the rest of the president’s remarks on the My Brother’s Keeper program, and think about how it also applies to people with disabilities.  I am reminded of another film I should watch where one character asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with the other characters responding, “Yes, I am!”  Not only am I my brother’s keeper, but I am fighting to free over four-hundred thousand other individuals predestined to a life of mediocrity.  As we bring Black History Month to a close, let us bring over seventy-five years of discrimination against workers with disabilities to a close.  Join me by supporting the passage of HR 831, the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013, because what is fair and right, is fair and right for all.  For more information visit: www.nfb.org/fair-wages.