Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016: The economics of disability

Each year, disability bloggers from all over the world gather for Blogging Against Disablism Day, which falls on 1 May. Astute readers will also note that 1 May is May Day, the international day of labour action. Since I take disability and labour alike very seriously, and there are numerous intersections between the two that are often ignored, I like to take the subjects on together every BADD, to raise awareness about the economics of disability and why intersectional analysis is so critical. This year, it comes with an extra punch, because it’s the 2016 election, more and more candidates are being pressured to talk about disability issues, and our relationship to the economy is a huge one.

1) Subminimum wage

Many people are not aware that under the Fair Labour Standards Act, it’s permissible to pay subminimum wages to certain classes of employees. Among them are disabled people, on the grounds that they can’t do as much work as nondisabled people and thus shouldn’t be compensated at the same rate. This contributes to the conditions that keep disabled people in poverty — about which more further down — and it’s also incredibly dehumanising, suggesting that disabled people are effectively only partial humans.

It also saves employers monstrous amounts of money, because they don’t need to hire and pay full wages to nondisabled people. And it leads to incredibly exploitative employment situations. One instance that made national headlines because it was so atrocious involved disabled workers at a turkey plant. The men were crammed into a tiny living space, paid a pittance, and expected to be glad of the work. Their employer charged them for living expenses and despite long days on the line and harassment from nondisabled colleagues, they took home about $65 a month — while living in a squalid ‘shed’ filled with roaches and filth.

Reforming the FLSA to eliminate minimum wage exceptions will improve living and working conditions for disabled people as well as others subject to the law (like food service workers, who receive a ‘wait wage‘). Any candidate campaigning with economic issues in mind should have been taking this particular bit in the teeth from the start.

2) Sheltered workshops

The sheltered workshop model was once immensely popular in the United States as elsewhere, viewed as a compassionate way to provide disabled people with occupational therapy, something to do, and nominal income. What it became was a form of entrenched segregation from society, and another opportunity for economic abuse. In sheltered workshops, disabled people complete basic, often repetitive tasks — like sorting clothes for Goodwill, processing turkey, or inspecting electronic components — for a pittance. Goodwill is the most notorious offender, paying pennies on the dollar to its disabled ’employees’ on the grounds that really they’re there for occupational therapy, not to work.

‘Working’ in a sheltered workshop does not provide people with job skills. It provides limited opportunities for interactions with the public. It doesn’t provide enough money to live independently in the community. And it allows companies to create sheltered workshop models and import disabled workers to take advantage of an incredibly cheap source of labour that often can’t self-advocate. Thanks to changes in federal policies, sheltered workshops may finally become a thing of the past, but more than one candidate on the trail this year was proud of a record on promoting this employment model.

Supported employment is a much more empowering option. Disabled people can work in a range of environments in the real world with wages partially subsidized by a third party, so employers have an incentive to employ them. Some may need aides at work or during training to help them develop job skills, but others do not. Actual jobs provide disabled people with diverse, dynamic working environments where they’re treated with respect as members of the community, rather than being isolated.

3) Unemployment

The disability unemployment rate runs at roughly twice that of nondisabled people. Often, this is not because a disabled person doesn’t want to work, or can’t work. It’s because society has created barriers that make it impossible for her to join the workforce. Those start with job discrimination — which is routine in advertisements (despite the law), interviews, and on the job, where disabled people are harassed, passed over for promotions, and not given the accommodations they need. In this hostile environment, it’s hard to find and keep work.

Other disabled people are caught in the benefits trap, a pernicious problem. Many disabled people qualify for federal benefits to assist with cost of living and health care, though those benefits are usually not sufficient to live a very fulfilling life thanks to the fact that they do not keep pace with inflation. Some people would like to work, either because they genuinely enjoy working or want to supplement their benefits, but as soon as they start to work, their benefits are cut, on the grounds that they no longer need financial assistance. Thus, someone is forced to use her wages for the benefits she was receiving, effectively leaving her at net zero. Going to work can mean losing an aide or personal assistant who makes it possible to live independently, or being unable to receive necessary health care.

4) Poverty

All three of these issues wind around and through each other to contribute to an incredibly high poverty rate for disabled people. As many as 30 percent of disabled people in some regions are living in poverty. When your employment options are limited, it’s hard to support yourself. When you’re born into poverty, it’s harder to claw out of it, and disability is more common in impoverished communities. When you’re disabled as a result of occupational injuries in industries that don’t necessarily pay well — like roofing — you can’t afford to build up a savings and support yourself. Disabled people are kept in a state of enforced poverty, which serves to further distance them from society at large.

One bitter consequence of being kept in poverty is that many disabled people are pushed into institutions because they cannot afford to support themselves in their own communities. Despite the fact that institutions are more expensive, that’s where government benefits tend to be routed. Thus, rather than paying out a few thousand annually for community-based assistance, the government shells out tens of thousands to trap people, including disabled youth, in nursing homes. This completely bizarre allocation of resources is a chilling testimony to the contempt with which the government views disabled people — better kept locked away where they can’t disturb anyone than supported so they can live in their communities.

Increasing disability benefits isn’t going to solve this problem, though some candidates have campaigned on that proposal. Disabled people need institutional supports — like a more aggressive fight on workplace discrimination — to thrive as free members of society alongside their nondisabled counterparts.

Image: Goodwill, Brad.K, Flickr