Don’t sabotage the Rehabilitation Act

For most of human history, society has believed that people with disabilities are incapable of productive work. This was the belief in 1938, when Congress exempted employers of workers with disabilities from paying their workers the federal minimum wage. Since then, attitudes about workers with disabilities have slowly changed, and our nation’s laws and policies have changed with them. Recognizing that Americans with disabilities could work and make a living, Congress passed the Rehabilitation Act in 1973. This historic law recognized that people with disabilities should not be discriminated against in employment and strengthened a system, funded by the federal government and administered through state agencies, that prepares Americans with disabilities for competitive employment in the mainstream workforce.

Despite this important policy shift, however, the provision of federal law allowing certain employers to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage remains in place. Although many Americans with disabilities receive the training and opportunity they need to find jobs that are both personally and financially rewarding, some 400,000 workers with disabilities remain trapped in segregated, subminimum wage employment in what is called the “sheltered workshop” system. Many of these workers have intellectual disabilities and are placed in sheltered workshops by their legal guardians out of misplaced compassion and the outdated belief that disabled people can’t really work. This is no longer justifiable for any reason, if it ever was; it is discriminatory and immoral. The National Federation of the Blind, on whose board I serve, and fifty other organizations of people with disabilities support legislation that would repeal the obscure provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that keeps this unconscionable practice alive.

Until now, people with disabilities and their advocates have managed to keep the rehabilitation system legally walled off from the separate and unequal subminimum wage employment system. When I served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration during the Clinton administration, we issued regulations ending the practice of rehabilitation agencies placing individuals with disabilities in segregated, subminimum wage jobs and counting them as successful employment outcomes. Imagine my dismay when the latest reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, which contains the reauthorization of the Rehabilitation Act, was introduced and referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (the HELP Committee) with language—in a new Section 511—that would allow rehabilitation agencies to place workers in subminimum wage employment.

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The effort to pass this legislation is being led by HELP Committee Chairman Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and ranking member Sen Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who claim that they have introduced this new provision to curtail the placement of young people in subminimum wage jobs. Harkin has good reason to want to stop this practice—one of the most shocking and shameful instances of subminimum wage employment was exposed in his state a couple of years ago. A turkey processing operation was paying men with intellectual disabilities forty-one cents an hour and housing them in an unheated, roach-infested “bunkhouse.” I do not doubt Harkin’s sincerity, but I do question his method of trying to stop it from happening again.

Section 511 purports to permit placement in subminimum wage work only as part of training for later competitive employment, with a review of the worker’s status required every six months. But this approach would merely write subminimum wages into the Rehabilitation Act—where there has never before been any language authorizing subminimum wages. Sheltered workshops often claim that they are training their workers, but we know from sad experience and extensive study that 95 percent of the workers who enter sheltered workshops never leave them. Section 511 does nothing but require a rehabilitation counselor to certify that a worker is in “training” every six months. This proposal will simply make the rehabilitation system complicit in the exploitation of disabled workers from the time they are old enough to leave school—or possibly earlier—until they die.

The way to end discrimination against and exploitation of workers with disabilities is to stop allowing the payment of subminimum wages. A bill being considered in the House of Representatives, the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, would do this responsibly. Sabotaging the Rehabilitation Act by placing language in it that allows rehabilitation agencies to place workers in sheltered workshops, even with purported restrictions, won’t work, and in fact will make the situation worse. When the HELP Committee considers this legislation on Wednesday, Section 511 should be stripped from the bill.

Schroeder served as commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration under President Bill Clinton from 1994 until 2001. He is currently first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind and a research professor for the San Diego State University Research Foundation.