Last month, the Labour and the Conservative Parties in the United Kingdom (UK) were united in their views regarding the worth of people with disabilities. Lord David Freud, the United Kingdom Welfare Reform Minister, a position equivalent to the Secretary of Labor here in the United States, was secretly recorded saying that he believes there is a group of people that are not worth the full wage. However, since the UK passed their first national minimum wage bill in 1999, people with disabilities have been entitled to the same wages as non-disabled workers. Both the Labour Party and the Welfare Reform Minister’s own party, the Conservative Party, were outraged that a public official would make such an ignorant statement. Everyone deserves the protection of a minimum wage.
As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron publicly set the record straight. He passionately reminded Parliament that, “The minimum wage is paid to everybody, disabled people included” (Watt & Wintour, 2014). The Prime Minister, whose severely disabled son, Ivan, passed away in 2009, went on to say, “I don’t need lectures from anyone about looking after disabled people. So I don’t want to hear any more of that. We pay the minimum wage. We’re reforming disability benefits. We will help disabled people in our country. We want to help more of them into work.” He knows firsthand that people with disabilities, with the proper training and support, can obtain employment that is worth the minimum wage. As a political leader, he made it clear that not only is that the philosophy of his country, it is the law of his land. In the UK, the minimum wage is £6.50, which is $11.13 in U.S. dollars, and the protection applies to all adults aged 21 and over, disabled or not.
The Labour Party was equally outraged. Leader of the Party, Ed Millington, challenged Prime Minister Cameron, asking him if the Welfare Reform Minister’s views were those of the entire Conservative Party. He pointed out that “These are not the words of someone who ought to be in charge of policy for disabled people,” and said, “Surely someone holding those views cannot stay in this government” (Watt & Wintour, 2014).
In the end, Lord Freud kept his job, but only after issuing an apology: "To be clear, all disabled people should be paid at least the minimum wage, without exception, and I accept that it is offensive to suggest anything else" (Morris, 2014).
The United States is singing a different tune. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and, under a law passed in 1938, Americans with disabilities are excluded from this protection. In the UK, when someone even suggested that people with disabilities were not worth the full wage, people were outraged. Not just every day citizens, not just advocates for people with disabilities, but the leaders of the government were outspoken about the injustice of this implication. Where is the outrage here? Why is it okay for people with disabilities to be paid less than the minimum wage in the United States?
The truth is, it is absolutely not okay that people with disabilities are paid less than the minimum wage. With the proper training and support, people with disabilities can be productive employees. The United States’ minimum wage exemptions are outdated. It is time for us to catch up to other Western countries like the UK and ensure that Americans with disabilities are entitled to the same protections as every other American citizen.
Few people even realize that we are this far behind the times. Even fewer people know that some workers, right here in America, are being paid pennies per hour. The UK is doing the right thing, and so can we. But if no one speaks out about this injustice, it will never be repealed. With knowledge comes passion and with passion comes action. Are you outraged?
Watt, Nicholas & Wintour, Patrick. "Welfare reform minister: some disabled people ‘not worth’ minimum wage." The Guardian. October 15, 2014. Accessed on November 6, 2014 from: http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/oct/15/welfare-reform-minister-disabled-not-worth-minimum-wage.
Morris, Nigel. "Lord Freud: Tory welfare minister apologises after saying disabled people are 'not worth’ the minimum wage." The Independent. October, 15, 2014. Accessed on November 6, 2014 from: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/lord-freud-tory-welfare-minister-accused-of-claiming-disabled-people-are-not-worth-the-minimum-wage-9796062.html.