The National Federation of the Blind, as well as every other disability advocacy group in America, has always believed that our problems are not related to our disabilities, but to society’s misconceptions and attitudes about them. The issue is really low expectations. Most people with disabilities are unemployed or underemployed not because we cannot work, but because society does not believe that we can work, or believes that we cannot do so productively, or believes that accommodating our needs in the workplace would be too troublesome, or believes some combination of all of these things. At some time in our lives, many of us have believed these things ourselves; we are, after all, part of society, and we absorbed society’s low expectations for us. And sometimes, society’s low expectations were sadly reinforced by our communities, by our schools, and by the very agencies and organizations that were supposed to help us succeed. Our beliefs only changed when we came in contact with people or organizations that do not accept or conform to the low expectations that society has for people with disabilities.
Low expectations by the non-disabled are regrettable and present a huge barrier to our success, but they are at least understandable. For the most part, they come from ignorance, not malice. But what are we to say of those who should know better, those who claim to be providing productive, fulfilling work for people with disabilities, but who pay these workers less than the minimum wage? How can these people, and these entities, claim to be providing something of value to workers with disabilities, while publicly parroting the misconception that these workers cannot and will not ever be productive in a competitive environment? Some of these entities are organizations that claim to represent the best interests of people with disabilities to the public. Why, then, have they given up on the people that they claim to represent? How can they insist that their clients be treated with dignity, yet deny them the dignity of equal pay for equal work? How can they advocate for the civil rights of people who have intellectual disabilities or physical limitations, while at the same time paying them, in some cases, what most people would consider slave wages? Why are they telling the public that people with disabilities are equal and must be treated equally, while telling their workers, “You are not good enough to earn the pay that others earn?” Of course, they do not say that last in so many words. But the meager paychecks that they hand to their workers speak volumes, and the workers who receive them get the message.
Organizations that claim to represent people with disabilities can fairly be divided into two groups: those who believe that people with disabilities are able to compete on terms of equality with everyone else--given proper training, opportunity, and support--and those who say that they believe this but have, in reality, given up on people with disabilities. Those who have given up on the disabled are the ones that pay disabled workers less than the federal minimum wage and that justify subminimum-wage payments to the public by saying that these workers can do no better. The National Federation of the Blind and the nearly fifty other organizations that support the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act have not given up on the disabled, and will never do so.