It’s the 21st anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act, a law that univocally bans discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the public and private sectors. The US was the first country to adopt national civil rights legislation that calls for equal access to jobs, transportation, public services, public spaces and much more. The ADA also made possible the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), under which children up to the age of 21 like my 14-year-old son Charlie have the right to a free and appropriate education in the least restricted environment.
Nearly one in five Americans — some 36 million people — has a disability and about 5 percent of children aged 5 to 17 are disabled. In a presidential proclamation, President Obama emphasized how, thanks to the ADA, individuals with disabilities lead “fuller lives in neighborhoods that are more accessible and have greater access to new technologies” while students with disabilities “now enjoy the same educational opportunities as their peers and are gaining the tools necessary to reach their greatest potential.” But much remains to be done to ensure that individuals with disabilities do not face discrimination in housing and in the workplace. 72 percent of those with disabilities do not work, compared to 27 percent of those of the same age without a disability. as Nirvi Shah writes EdWeek’s On Special Education blog.
Shah takes those figures from the US Census and also notes that
- 21 percent of people 16 and older have disabilities and live in poverty, compared to 11 percent of those without a disability.
- For those with a disability, median income is $18,865, which is about $10,000 less than those without a disability.
28 percent of those with a disability do not have a high school diploma, in comparison to 12 percent for those without a disability. Nearly 75 percent of students with disabilities in Texas have been suspended or expelled, versus 55 of students without a disability.
In other words, we’ve got a very long way to go in ensuring equal access and opportunities for individuals with disabilities. Disability advocates protested in Washington, D.C. and throughout the US today against a proposal that would make workers with disabilities something less than equal by setting guidelines on when they can be paid less than minimum wage. Under the proposal, individuals with disabilities could work for less than the minimum wage “if they meet certain age-related requirements and if they do so while receiving job training designed to prepare them for competitive employment,” says Disability Scoop. Workers are not supposed to stay in such subminimum wage situations for longer than six months unless they wish to.
Says Disability Scoop about Tuesday’s protests:
Members of the National Federation of the Blind are holding “informational protests” outside the district offices of members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Tuesday….
Tuesday’s events are designed to urge senators to reject a proposal that would outline the circumstances under which people with disabilities could be employed at less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, organizers say.
“Unequal pay for equal work on the basis of disability is unfair, discriminatory and immoral,” said Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind.
The Senate committee is expected to consider the proposal covering so-called subminimum wage next week as part of a reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act.
Members of TASH, the National Down Syndrome Society and other disability rights advocates have been speaking out against the proposal which, they say, “creates several loopholes that may put more youth at risk of being placed in sheltered workshops and earning below the minimum wage.” The guidelines are not really safeguards, but could end up giving sheltered employment providers a “checklist to meet in order to deem people with disabilities eligible for subminimum wage jobs.” The proposal could indeed have the result of increasing the number of those with disabilities employed in low paying environments.
However, some disability organizations including The Arc support the proposal, saying that the fact that it creates guidelines for a “system that currently has little oversight” is welcome.
The proposed legislation is not only in direction contradiction to the ADA, but also sends the message that individuals with disabilities are worth less in the workplace and, indeed, are simply worth less. Last month, Philip Davies, a Tory MP from Shipley in the UK made a similar proposal that disabled people be paid less than the minimum wage, to increase the likelihood of them getting a job. Employers, said Davies, could hire individuals with disabilities and then, after seeing if they might be as “productive as those without a disability,” consider moving “up the pay rates. ”
Davies’ remarks sparked a public outcry — “backward anti-disabled rhetoric,” wrote Lucy Glennon in the Guardian. A petition demanding an apology for disabled Britons has gotten over 17,000 signatures and got petition has also gotten the attention of Davies, who wrote to Care2 and demanded that the petition be taken down.
Here in the US, we also need to take action and tell the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the proposal for a subminimum wage for workers with disabilities is discriminatory. As an ad the National Federation of the Blind ran in The Washington Post says,
“Unequal pay for equal work on the basis of disability is unfair, discriminatory and immoral.”
It’s hard to believe that, even as we’re celebrating the ADA, one of its core principles — that individuals with disabilities have the right to equal access and accommodations in all areas of the public and private sector — is being challenged and even threatened. Please take action and tell the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the proposed legislation puts workers with disabilities in danger of being exploited and violates the rights of individuals with disabilities under the ADA.
In the words of disability activists: “Nothing about us without us.”
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