Blog Date: 
Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Dr. Marc Maurer

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.

The president said last night: “We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens.”  We would add that some of us are blind, deaf, or have mobility impairments or developmental delays. However, we are not broken people.  “That’s just how we are made.”  We may look different or do things differently, but each of us has the potential to make a real contribution to society.  We, too, are citizens. We believe that the 300,000 American citizens with disabilities currently employed at subminimum wages have the capacity to be productive, competitive employees who deserve the same workforce protections as the millions of other nondisabled American citizens.  Similarly, as long as there is a federal minimum wage guarantee for nondisabled employees, workers with disabilities should have the same minimum wage guarantee.  All citizens, including those with disabilities, must be accorded the same rights and protections. Equality is part of our American creed, and as we write what the president called “the next great chapter in our American story,” we must, at long last, apply our belief in equal treatment and equal opportunity to Americans with disabilities.