Last night during his State of the Union address, President Obama described the need for better education and training in order to build a more qualified workforce. He went further to describe how the current minimum wage leaves many hourly workers, particularly those with families, earning wages below the poverty line. He argued for more investment in the training and education of the workforce, and for raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00 an hour. The same moral and economic arguments being used to justify a lifting of the minimum wage apply to workers with disabilities, about 300,000 of whom are currently being paid wages significantly below the federal minimum wage and the poverty line. Workers with disabilities also need a living wage that raises them out of poverty and dependence on public assistance, and allows them to contribute to the economy by spending the money they have earned.
For over seventy years, certain employers have capitalized on the misconception that workers with disabilities are not productive enough to earn the federal minimum wage. Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act was supposed to have been enacted as a compassionate offering for workers with disabilities to earn wages commensurate with their productivity. In actuality, it is a manifestation of what another president, George W. Bush, called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The National Federation of the Blind and other organizations of Americans with disabilities are working to remove the veil of false compassion currently being used to justify the payment of subminimum wages to workers with disabilities. Until we expose this provision for what it is—discrimination wearing the mask of pity—some employers will continue to refuse to implement the proven innovative training and employment strategies that allow those with even the most significant disabilities to engage in competitive integrated employment. Moreover, the 300,000 people with disabilities currently being exploited by subminimum wage employers will always remain public beneficiaries and never achieve real employment.