There are growing calls for increasing the minimum wage so working people can earn enough to support themselves and their families. Few people realize that the Fair Labor Standards Act, adopted in 1938, and which created the minimum wage, allows employers to pay a subminimum wage to workers with disabilities. Today in North Carolina, thousands of workers with disabilities are paid less than the minimum wage, and sometimes pennies an hour. The rationale for inclusion of this section of the law was that the reduced wage was an incentive to employers to hire workers with disabilities. Those who defend this system today make a similar argument: this is the only way that some people will be able to get jobs at all.
The subminimum wage may seem like a vestige of a less enlightened time, but it’s consistent with a persistent view of people with disabilities as being on the margins of society. Inherent in this view is the assumptions that people with disabilities don’t have ordinary lives, and should be willing to accept an unequal share of human dignity.
Another example, circa 2014:
When you go to the DMV to renew your license, you won’t have to provide medical documentation of your ability to drive – unless you have a disability. You certainly wouldn’t expect that you will to have to go through medical visits to prove, year in and year out that you are able to drive. Especially when there has been no change in your ability to drive since the last you renewed your license – unless you have a disability. No tickets. No accidents. And North Carolina law says you can’t be road tested just to renew your license unless you have violated traffic laws.
Or unless, you are a law-abiding citizen with a disability.
When Disability Rights NC sued the DMV over these practices, we described the stories of clients who have non-degenerative disabilities that do not impair their driving. Some use adaptive equipment to drive, and have done so safely for years. The Attorney General’s office, though, argues that drivers must be able to exercise “reasonable and ordinary control” of their vehicles, and that our clients cannot exercise “ordinary” control because they use adaptive equipment; therefore, the DMV says, it can continue to put them through testing and medical review indefinitely. Even those who don’t use adaptive equipment are subject to continual review, according to DMV’s lawyers, because they “admit” to having physical impairments.
Now consider the ever-changing system of managed care for those with mental illness with its opaque processes and confusing requirements. Managed care organizations operate using undisclosed algorithms to decide who will get care, how much, when and where. Accessing treatment means getting permission from people who are far removed from the actual clinical setting, literally and figuratively. While there are many compassionate, caring, and committed professionals providing vital clinical services, the individual seeking treatment and his or her treatment professionals are constrained by financial and procedural rules that few can understand.
At Disability Rights NC’s recent Disability Advocacy Conference, our keynote speaker told a story that provides a metaphor for the experiences of people with disabilities: Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley was at the head table of an event, preparing to make a speech. He asked the waiter who was placing a pat of butter at each setting for an extra one. The waiter said no. Senator Bradley said, “Maybe you don’t know who I am.” He explained he was a former professional basketball champion, former U.S. Senator, and a Presidential candidate. The waiter replied, “Maybe you don’t know who I am.” Bradley admitted that he didn’t. The waiter replied “I’m the guy in charge of the butter.”
So it is with many people with disabilities, our speaker concluded: at the mercy of those in charge of the metaphorical butter – a living wage, a driver’s license, access to treatment, a means to survive.
As has been true with other civil rights movements, changing the culture will take time. In the meantime, Disability Rights NC will continue to use legal advocacy to level the playing field so our clients can take back reasonable and ordinary control of their lives.
And their butter.
Vicki Smith is the Executive Director of Disability Rights NC.