Autistic Future
October 8th, 2016

Workers With Disabilities: Inclusion Is Safer

In 1977, con­cerned state employ­ees dis­cov­ered a group of men, almost all Black, liv­ing in out­build­ings on the farms where they worked. Accord­ing to an arti­cle pub­lished in the Atlanta Dai­ly World on Novem­ber 20 of that year, they had been sent out of a state hos­pi­tal sev­er­al years pri­or to do farm work around Bald­win Co., GA. It isn’t clear that they were paid at all. By the time state work­ers checked up on their wel­fare, at least six were found “‘kept like animals’…under near­ly inhu­man con­di­tions.” They seem to have con­tin­ued liv­ing in shacks and work­ing for the farmer to whom they were giv­en like prop­er­ty long after their offi­cial release because they had nowhere else to go. When they were redis­cov­ered in 1977, the state promised to help them move on. I hope they lived out their days in peace, but I don’t know how their sto­ry end­ed. What I read in that short arti­cle is all the infor­ma­tion I have.

Prac­ti­cal­ly every­one, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of peo­ple who want to return to the farm mod­el of hous­ing adults with I/DD, wants this kind of treat­ment of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to be left behind in the 20th cen­tu­ry. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it isn’t. Lit­i­ga­tion over this sort of thing has start­ed since the begin­ning of the month. Old­er men with intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ties who spent their lives in a South Car­oli­na meat pack­ing plant may final­ly have their rights vin­di­cat­ed. Anoth­er fed­er­al agency, this time the EEOC, is suing their for­mer employ­er (or is ‘human traf­fick­er’ the bet­ter term?) over poor liv­ing con­di­tions and decades of their lives tak­en for far below the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. The meat pack­ing work­ers don’t fit the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive of dis­abil­i­ty. They weren’t help­less. They weren’t unable to work or too incom­pe­tent or frag­ile to be prof­itably employed. The EEOC acknowl­edges that they were good at their jobs. They seem to have been good enough to be worth exploit­ing. Anoth­er group of men with dis­abil­i­ties used in the same way by the same com­pa­ny was skilled enough to be asked to train a group of non-dis­abled suc­ces­sors. Worked like machines and sep­a­rat­ed from loved ones when­ev­er it was con­ve­nient for their employ­er, these men were resound­ing­ly use­ful. Only in the last few years have they had many oppor­tu­ni­ties to expe­ri­ence being any­thing else.

This is con­trary to stereo­types about dis­abil­i­ty, but it is in keep­ing with Amer­i­can dis­abil­i­ty his­to­ry.  Asy­lums ran on inmate labor. That was by design, a cost-sav­ing mea­sure. Patients lived in harsh con­di­tions, did hard work, and weren’t always ade­quate­ly fed. Many or most states used unpaid patient work­ers, with ques­tion­able con­sent at best, fair­ly recent­ly. The exploita­tion of dis­abled labor, often but not always with a racial com­po­nent, is noth­ing new. Indeed, this case seems odd for so many of the vic­tims being white. Some bod­ies have always been per­ceived as both sub- and super­hu­man, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly requir­ing work as a means of con­trol, and too mind­less to be wor­thy of pay. Indeed, this case seems odd for so many of the vic­tims being white.


a large, rundown, white building with the word 'laundry' on the sign above the door looks abandoned and desolate

This is the laun­dry build­ing at Geor­gia’s Cen­tral State Hos­pi­tal. Before inte­gra­tion, laun­dry work, among the least desir­able jobs on the hos­pi­tal cam­pus, was per­formed by Black women patients.


Keep­ing work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties, espe­cial­ly those who are also peo­ple of col­or, in con­di­tions that bear an uncom­fort­able resem­blance to slav­ery has fall­en out of favor, but it may be con­tin­u­ing here and there. It was just months ago that a pair of South Car­oli­na attor­neys filed suit on behalf of a Black man with an intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty who alleged that he was treat­ed as a slave ‑com­plete with racial slurs, inhu­mane hours, and tor­ture when he ‘mis­be­haved’- for four years before his res­cue in 2014. It’s hard to shake the nag­ging fear that some­one, in the anonymi­ty of an unfa­mil­iar city or the iso­la­tion of some South­ern or far-west­ern hin­ter­land, may still be going through this. Milder forms of exploit­ing dis­abled work­ers still take place in the open. Orga­ni­za­tions with sub­min­i­mum wage cer­tifi­cates con­tin­ue this tra­di­tion. They some­times claim to be prepar­ing peo­ple for real work or employ­ing peo­ple no one else would, and pay­ing below min­i­mum wage, when they place work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties along­side nondis­abled cowork­ers, per­form­ing work some­times done by nondis­abled peo­ple, in nor­mal, com­pet­i­tive employ­ment set­tings. Their incen­tives are obvi­ous­ly mis­aligned with the objec­tive of help­ing their most pro­duc­tive work­ers, the peo­ple who would fare best on the job mar­ket, move on to real jobs. It isn’t sur­pris­ing that most peo­ple placed in these set­tings nev­er move on to jobs that pay the kinds of wages a nondis­abled work­er would expect.

Some of the solu­tions to these prob­lems will have to be brought about by law­mak­ers and reg­u­la­tors (deal­ing with sub­min­i­mum wage cer­tifi­cates) and lawyers, social work­ers, and oth­er pro­fes­sion­als equipped to deal with human traf­fick­ing (deal­ing with any remain­ing cas­es of old­er forms of exploit­ing dis­abled work­ers). As a law stu­dent, I can eas­i­ly imag­ine attor­neys help­ing vic­tims sue for dam­ages and find­ing pro bono projects in help­ing peo­ple escape exploita­tive boss­es who also hap­pen to be their guardians or rep­re­sen­ta­tive pay­ees. How­ev­er, nei­ther prob­lem is eas­i­ly addressed with­out buy-in from the per­son on the street. Some of these res­cues took place because of anony­mous tips from con­cerned cit­i­zens. These abus­es went on for as many years as they did because peo­ple ignored the sit­u­a­tion or assumed every­thing was fine. A major les­son to be learned here is that, if you want to make your com­mu­ni­ty safer for your most vul­ner­a­ble neigh­bors, just pay­ing atten­tion, get­ting to know them, and ask­ing ques­tions about liv­ing and work­ing con­di­tions that look ques­tion­able can go a long way.

Anoth­er area where pub­lic involve­ment is impor­tant is in advo­ca­cy for employ­ment first pol­i­cy. The dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty has long rec­og­nized that res­i­den­tial insti­tu­tions are dan­ger­ous. They can nev­er be made safe because putting mar­gin­al­ized, vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple togeth­er in one place, out of sight of any­one whose com­plaints might be tak­en seri­ous­ly, leads to cycles of abuse and neglect. Seg­re­gat­ed work­places have at least some such ten­den­cies. Even if peo­ple are some­what pro­tect­ed by going home at night, they’re out of sight and out of mind for large parts of the day. If we want to be sure of end­ing a form of exploit­ed labor some­times tinged with the lega­cy of chat­tel slav­ery, we have to shut down the seg­re­gat­ed set­tings where it happens.We have to bring dis­abled labor out into the light of inclu­sion so that pub­lic scruti­ny makes it hard­er to mis­treat these work­ers. If we want to ensure that work­ers with dis­abil­i­ties are paid the same as non-dis­abled col­leagues doing the same jobs, and work under the same stan­dards and con­di­tions, there is a sim­ple solu­tion: put them in jobs that non-dis­abled peo­ple do. Help them seek work that match­es their cre­den­tials, strengths, and weak­ness­es in nor­mal, com­pet­i­tive posi­tions open to dis­abled and non-dis­abled appli­cants like every­one else.