by Jim Marks
From the Editor: Jim Marks is a longtime NFB leader from Montana. He works as the administrator of the Disability Employment and Transitions Division for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. On August 28, 2013, he circulated the following message to personnel in his department. It provides perspective on our on-going struggle to outlaw subminimum wages for disabled workers. He can be reached at <email@example.com>. This is what he wrote:
"The legitimate purpose of society and its governments is not to govern people and to promote the good life for them, but to empower them to govern themselves and to provide the good life for themselves and their fellow humans." -- Justin Dart
This is an update from me, Jim Marks, to the staff members of Disability Employment and Transitions. Please let me know what you think.
The parallels between the civil rights movements of African Americans and Americans with disabilities are astonishing. Today's anniversary and a work of fiction reminded me of the similarities. The Help, which was written by Kathryn Stockett in 2009 and later became a movie, tells the fictional stories of African American housemaids working for middle-class whites in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. The maids work under segregation and for subminimum wages, and their tales evoke powerful ideas and emotions.
One maid, referring to her white employer, said that her boss didn't pick her life; it picked her. The maid coached her boss's daughter, who was suffering from low self-esteem, to make a different decision by asking, "Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?" This means, in part, that the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is stuck. To get unstuck, individuals have to re-define life in non-oppressive, non-victimizing ways. Change occurs only when the victims choose fairness and start living life under their own terms.
Segregation and subminimum wages are present-day realities for many people with disabilities. It's more than something from the history books, because it happens each day and in most of our communities on a consistent, routine basis. Although segregation and subminimum wages are legal for people with disabilities in the US, our country has been moving towards integration and fair wages for decades. Recently the issue heated up, and we appear to be approaching a tipping point.
To end the injustice, people with disabilities must take steps to change what it means to have a disability. Fortunately, many are picking their own lives. Momentum is building, and it's only a matter of time before segregation and subminimum wages become part of the history books for people with disabilities. Resistance to the change sought by African Americans and people with disabilities is remarkably similar. Justification for the segregation and subminimum wages cloaks itself in good intentions. People say that such working conditions are in the best interests of the workers. They talk about how people "choose" to work in separate environments for less money because, although not perfect, the conditions beat the alternative of unemployment. They claim that many workers prefer the "protections" of the segregation and subminimum wages. They label the situation as necessary and dismiss ideas of integration and equality as dreams that might be realized in a distant future. They even go so far as to claim that the situation is natural and cannot be helped.
Sheila Leigland from Great Falls is one Montanan with a disability who is standing up and demanding change. She quit her job with Goodwill Industries when the company dropped her hourly wage to $2.75. Sheila tells her story to all who will listen, and many throughout Montana and the US are paying attention. Many of us saw the NBC Rock Center broadcast and read the Forbes magazine article on Sheila and others who, like the housemaids from The Help, are re-framing their lives.
Today is the fifty-year anniversary of the March on Washington and the delivery of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech, "I Have a Dream." King said a lot that day, but perhaps the most notable message was his outline of a positive future of justice. We all need to keep our eyes on the prize so that individuals and society improve. Recognizing where we were, where we are, and where we are going are all essential elements of change.
Disability Employment and Transitions must pay attention to the progress happening all around us. We cannot be at the lead of the advocacy because we carry out social policy and do not create it. Our role is to serve as a foundation and to build competitive integrated options as well as informed choices for people with disabilities. With this understanding we can, should, and will contribute by building opportunities for the people we serve. That's our job.