Since the mid-thirties, the Fair Labor Standards Act has created exceptions for people with disabilities that allowed them to be paid sub-minimum wage, often amounting to pennies on the dollar. Arising from this system grew a network of segregated warehouses, where people with disabilities would do mind numbing, simplistic labor, a practice which many are surprised to hear is still utilized through much of the United States. Today in Iowa, thousands of people with disabilities are segregated from their peers, warehoused away and exploited, all while 'providers' receive funding for the invaluable ‘work training’ being provided. Even as many work to dismantle this antiquated system, others seek to push for change without daring to speak truthfully about the damage sheltered work has dealt to generations of disabled youth.
Many disability related organizations worked together throughout early 2018 to prepare and release a large guide surrounding the transition from sub-minimum wage to community employment. Their efforts were important, and came from a desire to meaningfully improve the lives of people with disabilities. However, their most recent handbook, despite its overall high quality, elected to paint the continued existence of sub-minimum wage as an ongoing debate. Entitled The Great Debate, the handbook goes out of its way to avoid challenging the moral rot at the center of America’s sub-minimum wage laws, painting the end of sub-minimum wage as a needed evolution, as opposed to the end of a long tolerated moral evil.
Within disability advocacy, we have room for diplomacy with those with whom we disagree. But diplomacy does not mean ignoring discrimination and segregation when it’s perpetrated against the vulnerable, or validating the choices of those who should know better. The Great Debate is a fantastic resource, and a persuasive indictment of sheltered workshops. Yet despite the quality of its content, the title allows for the presumption this issue has two sides. It doesn’t.
Sheltered workshops were never good, they were never effective, and they were never anything other than a brutal form of segregation and exploitation. I offer no gratitude to those who ran them in the past, and I am not appreciative of those who run them now. Well-meaning intentions are not good enough when they are paired with willful ignorance. Allies are not helping when they segregate our young people, deny them the basic protections of labor laws, and subject them to decades of dehumanization. I would no more debate these facts then debate my own innate right to dignity.
In my work with disability rights, I have often come into situations with strongly held moral beliefs concerning one disability topic or another. Often, as I dive into the complexities of a subject, lines blur and my moral certainty gives way to a more fully realized appreciation for the topic. I meet individuals on all sides, and come to see an interconnected network of systems that resist easy categorization, giving nuance to my views on guardianship, independent living, and disability justice. These continued realizations are an all too familiar part of working at Disability Rights Iowa. But in the case of sub-minimum wage, the same scenario does not apply.
With every policy studied, every workshop visited, every consumer interviewed, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the consequences of sheltered workshops and an ever lower opinion of those who inflict segregated employment onto a vulnerable population for their own organizational stability. Sheltered workshops are wrong. This is not a debate.