Should the disabled have jobs? Does that question make you uncomfortable? Are you not sure how to answer or do you immediately know how to answer? Equal opportunity says yes, they should be allowed and certainly have the right. If you own a business or are a manager in charge of hiring, would you hire someone with a disability? What if their methods were different but the results were the same? What if they did a near perfect job of completing the task but it took a little longer than a worker without a disability?
These questions and more are important for you to ask and have answers to right now. There is a bill being pushed in Congress regarding the 14 c Subminimum Wage law. The bill, introduced by Rep. Greg Harper known as H.R. 831, is being touted as a way to free people with disabilities from being taken advantage of. It will do away with 14c and require that all people including those with disabilities be paid at least the minimum wage rate. At face value, especially if you are not familiar with the world of vocational training and employment for adults with disabilities, this seems like an easy decision. Yes, of course, why shouldn’t they be paid minimum wage like every one else?
In 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. In the law was a provision for allowing special wages for populations under particular circumstances. The section known as 14c stated that certificates would be granted under strict guidelines that allowed a sub minimum wage to be paid to workers with disabilities. The intention was to encourage companies to employ these workers and be able to pay them according to their productivity.
Since that time, at least in my state of California, agencies have popped up to assist individuals with developmental disabilities (Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Down’s Syndrome, etc.) in vocational training and job support. With funding through the state Department of Rehabilitation, thousands and thousands of adults through the years have benefitted from employment. The benefits include many things such as a paycheck to use for whatever they want, development of social as well as vocational skills, healthy activity for mental and physical well-being, etc. The programs provide opportunities for the most challenged individuals who could work at a piece rate in a Work Activity Program (also known as a sheltered workshop), and also for those individuals who have the potential to work independently with just a little support to get started (known in the industry as an Individual Placement).
The state funds provide the wages for the instructor or job coach, the insurance, administrative costs and transportation as needed. Agencies work with local business owners in a variety of industries to hire the differently-abled workers. In its original intent, this seems like a great win for all. Unfortunately, some agencies have become top-heavy with highly paid administrators and low paid staff. Some of those agencies hesitate to move the individual (known in the industry as a Consumer) forward into independent employment because it means losing that person’s funding.
As the mother of a 20-year-old with severe Autism, I do not expect to place my son in a work program. At least not until he fully understands what work and a paycheck means. That being said, I also understand as a former business owner that when I hire someone, I really need to get the most work for my money. To hire a person with a disability may be frightening to many business owners or managers because they are not convinced that the productivity will be worth the hourly wage paid out. This is an understandable concern, but not impossible to solve.
What is needed at this time is for both sides of this issue to come up with solutions. I for one do believe that 14c is antiquated and certainly does not protect those with disabilities. I do not, however, believe it is smart to suddenly pull the rug out from under those individuals who rely on their jobs for social interaction, spending money and personal growth.
Most of the adults I work with in our company are receiving full disability, housing, medical and transportation funding through the state. The amount they receive is fully dependent upon the amount of money from outside sources. This means that if you have a trust fund set up by your family, that fund amount will affect your benefit amount. If you have a job and make over a certain amount you may lose your medical or disability support…permanently. There needs to be a permanent safety net for these individuals. They would be much more inspired to work independently at a regular minimum wage job if they knew that their benefits would reactivate should they lose the job.
Rehabilitation was set up as just that…RE-habilitation. The individuals we are discussing have lifelong disabilities and their vocational skill level or employability is usually dependent upon the severity of the disability. Some would be able to go toe to toe with a worker without a disability. Others would require many accommodations, adaption, special treatment and possibly less productivity expectations. That is a reality. Employers need to be willing to take a step back and look at the value of each individual.
We must change what we are doing and how we are doing it. Many people with disabilities are being held back and not challenged to grow because of the fear of a loss in benefits or an agency’s concern for the bottom line. Let’s consider looking at the strengths and work toward a truly equal opportunity for everyone.