by Marc Maurer
Our policy in the National Federation of the Blind is to change the law to eliminate subminimum wages. The law that authorizes subminimum wage payments discriminates against the blind and otherwise disabled. I believe that legalized discrimination is worse than the unlawful sort because it uses the power of the state to say that discrimination is justified. Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act authorizes subminimum wage payments to disabled workers. We have been opposing the continued authority of Section 14(c) for as long as I can remember. Our first president, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, was writing to members of Congress about it in the 1940s. Today, more than seven decades after the founding of the Federation, Congress is considering a bill, H.R. 3086, that would eliminate the Section 14(c) authorization to pay disabled workers subminimum wages. This bill has come into being as a result of the work of the National Federation of the Blind.
I believe it is fair to say that most Americans do not know that disabled people may legally be paid subminimum wages. The system can exist only because members of the public are unaware of it. Whenever we take steps to bring it to the attention of the public, we are met with incredulity that the system exists at all. With this in mind we decided to conduct a number of public demonstrations in front of Goodwill establishments because Goodwill is probably the largest entity in the United States that pays workers subminimum wages. We have tried to initiate substantive conversations with Goodwill about its policy to pay subminimum wages, but the president of Goodwill has consistently refused to discuss the matter.
Consequently, it came as something of a surprise to me that the board of directors of one of our state affiliates and at least one of our chapters felt that the public protest against Goodwill’s policy should not take place in their localities. The reason behind the objection was that the local Goodwill did not follow the policy authorizing it to pay disabled workers less than the minimum wage. Some of our members thought that, if the local Goodwill store was paying at least the federal minimum wage, it should not be subjected to the ignominy of a national demonstration.
Why does the argument about local conditions appeal strongly to some? If the Goodwill store in my town is not paying subminimum wages, is it reasonable for me to challenge a Goodwill policy in my town that creates subminimum wage payments someplace else? Is it fair for me to demand of a local representative that equal treatment be established for all as a national policy?
The national policy to pay subminimum wages to disabled workers is in place at Goodwill, and the affiliates of Goodwill help to make the national presence of the organization what it is. Consequently, even though some good people participate in the Goodwill programs, the National Federation of the Blind has led a public demonstration that objects to a scandalous policy of discrimination against disabled people.
We have met a number of people in the halls of Congress who are trying to assure that our proposed legislation to eliminate the subminimum wage payments does not pass. Some of these people tell us that they represent Goodwill Industries. Goodwill Industries is a billion-dollar business with well over one hundred locations. It uses its name and its economic power to exploit disabled Americans, including the blind. It has a national policy that authorizes subminimum wage payments, and it uses the money it collects to pay the most expensive lobbyists to keep the exploitation system in place. This is why the protests have occurred. This is also why the conditions that apply to one Goodwill operation also affect all of the others.
When I shared these thoughts with some of my colleagues, they urged me to believe that I had missed something. Some people, they said, have multiple disabilities or intellectual disabilities which prevent them from being productive. “Do you not believe,” they asked me, “that it is fundamentally unfair to demand that an employer pay the minimum wage or above to people who are unable to be productive?”
I have several reactions to this question. First, Goodwill Industries makes money on disabled workers. It would not invite disabled workers to work in its places of business if it did not.
Second, implicit in the question is the assumption that disability indicates unproductiveness. I do not believe that there has ever been a demonstration that these are the same. I have met many people who thought, quite uncritically, that they are the same. Some of these people have been potential employers. Sometimes I’ve tried to get a job from some of them, discovering only that they could not imagine how I as a blind person might serve productively in their enterprises. My experience causes me to reject the question as it is propounded because it states quite unequivocally that those with multiple or intellectual disabilities are essentially unproductive. If this assumption is accepted at the outset, the conclusion is implied, and the disabled people do not work or do not get the protection to which others are entitled. It is not reasonable for employers to be required to employ the unproductive, but disability and unproductivity are not the same thing and should not be confused with each other.
Third, the system that employs disabled people implies that the task of demonstrating productivity is primarily placed upon the individual hired by the employer. However, the employment system has both managers and employees in it, and the tools that determine the nature of the employment are almost exclusively within the control of management. It is the task of the employees to be productive, and it is the task of the management to conduct the business in a way that permits employees to be productive. Because management has control of the business, if the individual workers are not productive, it is at least as likely that management has failed as that the workers have. How many systems employed in business expect individuals to use their vision? Many of these systems do not need to require blind people to use vision, but they are built to require it. When blind people are unable to be productive using these systems, it is not the fault of the blind person. Management is expected to manage in a way that uses the talents of the workers productively. A failure in the system is very likely the fault of management, not a reflection of the productive capacity of the worker.
All workers should be treated with respect. Part of the respect is to treat all workers as a single class—not to divide workers into those who have legal protection and those who have none. It is arguable that those who possess disabilities are in greater need of legal protection than those who are without them because the capacity of disabled people is very frequently misunderstood. In the struggle to obtain employment, it is likely that disabled people are more vulnerable than others.
Although the arguments contained in this summation demonstrate good reasons for taking the position that we have in the National Federation of the Blind, they do not address the uneasiness of some of our members about conducting public demonstrations. As I pondered what we are doing, it occurred to me that blind people are strongly encouraged to “fit in” and are discouraged from being “conspicuous.” A constant demand exists that blind people conform to a standard of acceptable, normal behavior established by somebody else. I find the constant barrage of instructions about my behavior to be annoying. Some people tell me that I should wait; others tell me that I should do certain things (and avoid other things) for my own safety; and still others advise me to be satisfied with my “lot in life” and not to seek to change it. I have long ago concluded that I will not accept the decisions of others about what I will do and what I will be. However, I have also come to know that being conspicuous can be uncomfortable.This leads me to an observation. We in the National Federation of the Blind must be prepared to set the standard of behavior for ourselves. We must not let somebody else determine the standards that will govern our lives. If we believe that a destructive national policy must be challenged, we must have the wit and the courage to take the steps required to challenge it. We must do so even if others think us conspicuous. We must do so even if others object to our right to express our own beliefs. We must not let a false sense of shame keep us from standing up for what we know is right. This reflection tells me once again why we have created the National Federation of the Blind.