Most theological references to people with disabilities portray us as broken people in need of healing who are dependent on the benevolence of others. Also, most faith traditions have a moral imperative to seek salvation by caring for the less fortunate, and people with disabilities, being deemed less fortunate, are therefore tokens for that salvation. The false perception of brokenness, coupled with the misapplied moral edict, results in a “compassionate discrimination” that limits the potential of every person with a disability.
Compassionate discrimination, like other types of discrimination, springs from ignorance, and deprives us all of the value each person and group of people has to offer. But unlike the abusive treatment of slaves resulting from racial discrimination, and unlike the chauvinistic treatment of women resulting from gender discrimination, compassionate discrimination is cloaked in sympathy and good intentions. The segregation of African-Americans in educational, employment, and living environments is unlawful and universally censured—no questions asked, no exceptions. Conversely, the segregation of people with disabilities in school, work, and home is justified as the creation of safe environments where we are nurtured and protected.
The 20 to 30 percent wage disparity between male and female employees is considered a discriminatory practice in the workplace. But perversely, the disparity between an executive’s $500,000 salary and the 22-cent-per-hour wage of the worker with a disability is considered reasonable. Work at such wages is even promoted as an opportunity for the disabled worker to experience the tangible and intangible benefits of work. Given this confused moral perspective, it is almost understandable why public policies have been developed that continues to limit people with disabilities from reaching our full potential.
In 1938, policymakers, acting on a laudable desire to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, made a huge mistake when they enacted Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act www.dol.gov/elaws/esa/flsa/14c/. That provision that authorizes the U.S. Department of Labor to issue Special Wage Certificates to employers, permitting them to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. As a result of the erroneous belief, commonly held in 1938 but long since disproved, that people with disabilities cannot be productive employees, employers are permitted to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages that are supposedly based on our productivity. This denial of fundamental wage protections to workers with disabilities, although masked as a compassionate offering of a work opportunity that would otherwise not be available, leaves over 300,000 people with disabilities employed at subminimum wages, some as low as three cents per hour.
A person with a disability is not less valuable than any other person, and although employing that person may require the use of nontraditional training and employment strategies, a worker with a disability is not inherently less productive than a nondisabled worker. Section 14(c) is a poor public policy that perpetuates compassionate discrimination and harms people with disabilities by denying us proper education and training opportunities, and by prohibiting most of us from obtaining competitive, integrated employment.
It is true that over 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, but current segregated subminimum-wage work environments have proven that they are not the solution to this dilemma. We must understand that it is not the disability itself that causes this circumstance. It is the lack of understanding about the true capacity of people with disabilities that results in the misperception that we cannot be productive. Once this misperception has been embraced, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to obtain real opportunities to demonstrate that we have that capacity. Rather than challenging the mistaken status quo, society’s “compassionate” remedy is to continue to create “safe,” segregated living, educational, and work environments for people with disabilities.
In order to implement a real solution to the unemployment problem, we must remove the mask of compassion from the discrimination we face. We must eliminate the “separate but equal” environments and we must repeal the discriminatory policies that are founded on the flawed assertion of incapacity. We can achieve this goal. Congressman Gregg Harper has introduced the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013 (H.R. 831) to repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and an online petition that you can sign to support the repeal of Section 14(c) can be found at https://www.nfb.org/fair-wages-petition.
We are not broken. Our disabilities are neither a curse from God nor penance for our sins. They are a manifestation of the life with which God has blessed us, and although the vessels which contain them are different, we have the same needs, desires, and abilities as everyone else. People with disabilities are not passive recipients of benevolence, we are also benevolent. We clothe the naked, we feed the hungry, we care for the sick and we demonstrate the capacity to believe, to have faith, and to worship God. We demand to be fully participating members of society, and we refuse to be reduced to the status of tokens for the salvation of others.
Anil Lewis was born in 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia. Lewis was diagnosed at age nine with retinitis pigmentosa, although his vision was fairly unaffected until 1989. He has a master’s in business administration in computer information systems and a master’s in public administration from Georgia State University. He has developed a job placement program for people with disabilities, represented people with disabilities in a law office and headed Georgia’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind https://nfb.org/. Today, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is the Director of Advocacy and Policy at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. He works with the NFB’s government affairs team to eliminate subminimum wages and the antiquated notion that blind and disabled people cannot be productive members of society. He is also the proud father of Amari, his bright, ambitious son.