MICHAEL D. BARBER of Des Moines is president of the Iowa affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a blind person who leads a statewide organization of blind people, I am often asked: What is the greatest challenge blind people face? My answer usually surprises people: For the blind, as for all people with disabilities, our biggest problem is other people’s attitudes about our disabilities and about how we should be treated.
Everyone wants to help us, but the kind of help they want to give isn’t always the kind of help we need. When we try to explain this, we are told that we are being unreasonable or, worse, ungrateful.
Why can’t we accept the things that society is willing to give us and believes to be best for us? The answer is simple: Like all other Americans, we demand freedom, not the care of supposedly benevolent custodians.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., has been the political champion of people with disabilities for many years and was a key proponent of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the civil rights act for people with disabilities.
The adulation he has justifiably received for his advocacy has, however, given him the impression that he can speak for us. Sen. Harkin has mistaken our appreciation of his past service for permission to advance a public policy that will set us back in our struggle for equality. He is endorsing an antiquated and immoral practice that allows workers with disabilities to be paid less than the minimum wage.
Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows certain employers to pay less than the federal minimum wage — usually “sheltered workshops,” the term for segregated factories set up specifically for workers with disabilities. Some of these workshops not only pay their workers mere pennies per hour, but they have them working in abhorrent conditions where the workers are physically and psychologically abused.
The Des Moines Register reported extensively on such a case, that of Henry’s Turkey Service, which paid workers at an Iowa turkey processing plant 41 cents per hour and housed them in a roach-infested, unheated building.
In a recent bill known as the Workforce Investment Act, reauthorization was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Sen. Harkin chairs. Language was included in Title V, Section 511 that purports to reduce the number of youth with disabilities placed in a sheltered workshop.
Although the intent is laudable, the policy endorses segregated subminimum-wage environments as viable training and employment options for workers with disabilities.
There is a better way to stop young people from becoming victims of subminimum-wage employment: Responsibly phase out the use of this practice over a three-year period, allowing existing entities to convert to a proven business model that leads to competitive integrated employment of people with disabilities.
That’s what another bill, the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, would do. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., introduced this legislation, and it currently has nearly 50 co-sponsors and is supported by the National Federation of the Blind and over 60 other organizations of people with disabilities.
Americans with disabilities have tried to convince members of the U.S. Senate to support a responsible phase-out of subminimum wages, like that introduced by Rep. Harper, rather than the ineffective, half measure proposed in Sen. Harkin’s bill.
We have offered objective policy analysis, historical data, case studies and descriptions of alternative best practices. We have provided data demonstrating that the archaic sheltered segregated model costs more and produces poorer outcomes for workers with disabilities. We have informed senators about alternatives for competitive, integrated employment that assist even those with significant disabilities in acquiring job skills that allow them to earn at least the federal minimum wage.
But rather than considering the merits of our arguments, most respond with this insulting question: “How does Sen. Harkin feel about this?”
With all due respect to Sen. Harkin, he is not a person with a disability and cannot speak for us. His reputation as a champion of the rights of people with disabilities came about because, in the past, he listened to us and put forward legislation in response to what he heard. When he rejects our advice, as he is doing by putting forward Section 511, he is no longer a champion but a custodian, seeking to substitute his own idea of what is best for us.
Sen. Harkin helped Americans with disabilities achieve important milestones on our road to freedom. But freedom cannot be achieved while Section 14(c) remains in force and its grinding, soul-crushing machinery is merely tinkered with.
If Sen. Harkin wants to secure his legacy as a champion of Americans with disabilities, he should amend the Workforce Investment Act to remove Section 511 and introduce a Senate companion to the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act.
These are the legitimate demands that millions of Americans with disabilities, speaking for ourselves, have put forward. Sen. Harkin and his colleagues must recognize and act upon them.
Mr. Anil Lewis, M.P.A.
Director of Advocacy and Policy
“Eliminating Subminimum Wages for People with Disabilities”
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
200 East Wells Street at Jernigan Place
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
(410) 659-9314 ext. 2374 (Voice)
(410) 685-5653 (FAX)