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.

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