by Cindy Bennett
From the Editor: Cindy Bennett is the recently elected treasurer of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, a winner of a 2014 National Federation of the Blind Scholarship, and a woman whose intention is to work in the field of adaptive technology for the blind. Every challenge she has in getting equal access to her coursework serves as one more affirmation that she has chosen the correct field and that the efforts of her labor and the intelligence she brings to the world are being properly focused. Because she is socially conscious enough to be concerned with more than her own narrow self-interest, Cindy shares her budding awareness about the unfairness of paying less than the minimum wage in an email post to the National Association of Blind Students (NABS) listserv. Here is what she says:
The first I heard about the fair wages initiative was at the 2011 National Convention. It was my first convention, and I was astonished that we cared about solving a problem experienced by those with disabilities who did not have hope of gaining anything better based on their lack of potential. I heard about the initiative again from our national representative at the NFB of Minnesota state convention and at the North Carolina state convention; I was attending BLIND Inc. and had the good fortune to attend both. Anil Lewis happened to be in Minneapolis for some reason and ran a seminar for the students at BLIND Inc. Surprise! It too was on the subminimum wage issue. I was annoyed at this point. I felt like people were yelling at me to just believe that it was wrong, and I didn't listen because my only experiences with people tagged as having multiple disabilities were at events where they were tokens for fundraising purposes or visiting a class or something.
I was a National Association of Blind Students representative at the NFB of Michigan convention later that fall, and Anil Lewis was the national representative. I had finally had enough, so I cornered him and asked him why the NFB expected its members to take action based only on moral arguments, when no one had ever presented me with any facts on which to act.
Since then I have seen numerous emails and stories filled with facts and figures that expose the fallacy that special wage certificates are in place for the good of those with disabilities. Not only did my confrontation help to change my mind about the rightness of pressing for the minimum wage for everyone, but it also convinced me that this is an organization in which what I say means something. I expressed a concern to a national leader, he listened and understood the value of what I and others were suggesting, and then he acted to address our concerns.
If it isn’t abundantly clear from what I’ve already said, I too, at first was very skeptical about the relevance of this issue in the National Federation of the—let's hear it—Blind—not Blind with other disabilities—and about whether it was actually unfair, discriminatory, and immoral.
Many entities justify their special wage certificate because they claim they are a training center for people with disabilities. If that is so, then you would expect trained people to depart such a center or at least move up in the ranks. At our NFB training centers, our students don't stay forever. Although we don't train students for one specific job, we have success rates of over 90 percent of our graduates finding jobs or going to school within a year of graduating from a center. I will echo others in noting that several students at our training centers have disabilities in addition to blindness. In contrast, only 5 percent of workers at these so-called sheltered workshops/training centers with their special wage certificates ever seek other employment.
Another argument is that passing legislation will mean that all people with disabilities working under the Section 14(c) provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act will lose their jobs. I agree with Arielle Silverman, the former president of the National Association of Blind Students, when she observes that, if employers do this, it is because they are prejudiced against workers with disabilities. It is obvious that these companies operate just fine, given they are able to pay exorbitant executive salaries.
A great example of this phenomenon occurred at the state convention of the NFB of Washington in 2012. BISM in Maryland, the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind, and the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind voluntarily forfeited their special wage certificates and committed to pay all workers at least the minimum wage. We thanked the CEO of the Seattle Lighthouse at our convention. He gave a report, as he does each year, and mentioned that the company was operating on a $54 million budget. He later mentioned that the transition would be difficult because it was costing the Lighthouse $60 thousand a year to raise everyone's wage to at least the minimum. A little math easily shows that this is just over one-tenth of 1 percent of their $54 million operating budget.
If a company is having difficulty making less than a one-tenth of 1 percent increase in its cost, then they have bigger problems. I would contend that the real transition is in attitudes rather than finances. Paying people ethically does not cost these companies; these are not mom-and-pop shops employing people with disabilities at subminimum wage; these are often conglomerate workshops that take advantage of the provision to get nice perks like preferential contracts, which means they have to do less work to receive more business, and people with disabilities are an easy ticket to such a provision.
For those that think this plight affects only those with multiple disabilities, you should be informed that our own NABS president, Sean Whalen, worked for subminimum wages at a sheltered workshop. He is now pursuing a master's in public policy from Harvard, but at the time his community believed that such a job was his only hope. He talked about this in his 2012 presidential report at the annual business meeting of NABS at the national convention. Similarly, there was a news special done months ago about a couple in Montana working for subminimum wages. If they have additional disabilities, they did not choose to disclose anything other than blindness in the news story.
However, I think this is irrelevant. We just had a discussion on the listserv of the National Association of Blind Students about working harder to include people who have disabilities in addition to blindness in the NFB. This fight is a direct way we are doing this. We believe that people with all types of disabilities can achieve adequate productivity in society with the proper training and opportunity. We highlight this in many of our major speeches. In an article about Walgreens hiring people with disabilities, mention is made of using simple organization strategies like colors, food items, or animals to help people whose understanding is not adequately communicated through lettered signage. The Walgreens article also mentioned several times that hiring people with disabilities was an experiment, and, if the workers did not meet their standards, they would let them go. My favorite part of the article, the one that really resonates with me as an accessibility researcher, is that the methods used to assist those with disabilities actually helped everyone.
Another thing I have wondered is whether some of these people with disabilities even understood what minimum wage is at the time they agreed to work for it. There is an inherent problem with this. We have legislation protecting those who cannot manage their own lives against abuse, and, if caregivers can be convicted for squandering their clients' money, how can a business be given the opportunity to take direct advantage of someone who doesn't know the system? What is more is that this idea is unrealistic. Many earners of subminimum wage know it and are brainwashed to believe they are not worth more. I heard these exact words said by a woman who attended the NFB of Oregon state convention. She interrupted Parnell Diggs's update about the fair wages initiative to say that she had other disabilities and mental health instability that prevent her from being productive enough to be worth paying the minimum wage. It sure seems like her employer does not fit the propaganda about the happy places that just love giving people with disabilities opportunity and increasing self-esteem. They have clearly exaggerated what society already tells her: as someone with a disability, she really isn't worth much, and she should be thankful for the charitable saviors who give her some way to spend her sad life. I don't see anyone going through tests to gauge whether they are worth anything.
All workers except people with disabilities are entitled to the minimum wage if they get a job. So this is about equality. And, if there is someone who—after being put through appropriate training and after being given appropriate opportunity—does not perform to company standards or who chooses not to work, then, disability or not, I do not believe he or she should be working at that job. I think that this will constitute a small minority of people with disabilities.
The essential question is whether it is okay to give someone something to do just to keep him or her occupied, when others doing that same something are given a proper wage. I have to wonder how unproductive these employees actually are. I wonder if the issue lies more with the inside-the-box training that is too often provided, in lieu of training that really meets the needs of the disabled people seeking work.
It is true that some employers pay their workers without disabilities based on productivity; it's called commission. Right-to-work states also require service industry workers like restaurant servers to count tips as part of their wage. But this has nothing to do with Section 14(c), which discriminates against a select group of individuals simply because they have a disability—not because they are less productive, but because they are disabled; productivity tests are implemented as a mechanism to determine wages; the certificates are not made for "less productive people."
It wasn't long ago that we treated other groups like this. I have watched several World War II videos about how to train a woman to work. They became popular when many women went to work to replace the men who had gone to fight. The videos were littered with misconceptions such as the need to be softer on a woman, the importance of not expecting as much out of her, and remembering not to expect her to understand higher level thinking. This sounds inane now, but we are still behind as a society when it comes to the perceptions of what people with disabilities can contribute to the workplace and society.
Some think it is utopian to think that legislation will solve the problem, and in some ways it is. And that is why the NFB also does other things, such as creating quality training for blind people and working with other companies and organizations who exemplify similar ideals to prove that the legislation should create rather than stifle opportunities. Some companies will choose to continue their prejudiced behavior against people with disabilities, but I would like to learn more about how realistic this is. It sounds to me like preferential contracts are pretty desirable, and any reputable companies that laid off a ton of workers with disabilities would get deplorable publicity.
If you think the NFB is crazy for believing in the capabilities of the disabled, then consider that President Obama included workers with disabilities in his recent executive order raising the minimum wage for all workers under federal contracts. Similarly, over fifty organizations made up of and for people with disabilities have joined the NFB in the effort to phase out Section 14(c).
So I challenge anyone who justifies the subminimum wage to take a good hard look at the sheltered workshops which employ it—their tax-exempt status, their preference in getting government contracts, their charitable solicitations, and their inflated salaries, and then tell me with a straight face that you believe it would be a hardship to pay at least the minimum wage to the blind and the otherwise-disabled who live in our world, share our expenses, and have the same hopes, dreams, and aspirations as do the rest of us. We can do better; we will do better!