I am writing an open message to workers with disabilities earning disability-based subminimum wages, as well as their friends and families. It becomes necessary to use such public media as the Civil Beat because it is a channel that flows above the walls of segregation. Technology today gives us options that are better than a message in a bottle.

NOTE: pick the correct link

You see, workers with disabilities in sheltered workshops are segregated from the rest of society, a concept all too familiar to the people of Hawaii because of the way that plantations kept workers segregated. As a matter of housekeeping, not all sheltered workshops pay subminimum wages, but these wages are paid in sheltered workshops.

Imagine visiting Hawaii as an outsider back in the height of the plantation days and seeing the workers with bottles around their necks. If you, as the outsider, wanted to know what was best for the plantation workers, would you ask the plantation owners, the lunas, or the workers?

Surely, some were confused about this at some point in time, but most of us would agree today that the plantation workers knew what was best for them. They may not have complained — they may have even made peace with their poverty and suffering — but they were not treated with aloha.

The author argues that it is wrong to pay people with disabilities a subminimum wage. Flickr: Dan Kamminga

Some privileged people argue that the plantation workers were not forced to work on plantations, but they often believed they had no alternative. Eventually, they organized with elected leaders, rose up, and got off the plantations.

When people unfamiliar with the sheltered workshops want to know what is best for the workers with disabilities inside them, they all too often direct their attention to the disability agencies and the leaders of the workshops themselves. These workshops and agencies will always protect their own interests first, just like any other institution.

People with disabilities have organized, and we continue to become more active in our own quest for liberation. When the workshops and agencies tell us why we should like being treated as second-class citizens and paid seven cents per hour, our elected leaders push back.

Sometimes, when people get up to speak publicly on something, we feel compelled to give the audience some highlights of our credentials so that people might listen to what we have to say. I have felt this urge many times. Since I have worked in the disability field since 2008, I have often felt like it would help my credibility to tell people, “I work for agency X.”

In fact, this is the anti-credential. What is really a credential is the fact that hundreds of people with disabilities voted for me through a democratic process so that I could speak for them. This makes me beholden to the voters who elected me, not beholden to someone who might be contributing to my paycheck.

Payment Alternatives

Sheltered workshops try to market themselves as part of the vocational rehabilitation system, as if they are preparing the workers for mainstream jobs. This claim has long been rejected by organizations of people with disabilities.

Sheltered workshops confuse rehabilitation with entertainment, as if we are capable of nothing else besides being entertained by smiling caretakers who give us the illusion of working. This confusion was flushed out as a conflict of interest in the public hearing testimony on Governor’s Message 734.

I’m here to talk about alternatives to the payment of subminimum wages.

Some of the able-bodied leaders and managers of sheltered workshops may have missionary mentalities, where they believe that they are doing what is best for us. Missionaries must be careful not to look down upon the people they serve and impose their own values and expectations upon those “lower” beings. Sometimes, missionaries can be too fixated upon the good feelings of accomplishing what they set out to do rather than truly giving the people what they request.

I’m here to talk about alternatives to the payment of subminimum wages. Some of them are quite simple and can be done essentially overnight:

  • Internships and apprenticeships: These allow entities to train people for jobs while paying them less than the minimum wage. I have personally done paid and unpaid internships, and there are many people in these arrangements at any given time in Hawaii. The sheltered workshops can use paid internships, or even unpaid internships, to organize their agreements with the workers with disabilities who are currently receiving disability-based subminimum wages. Whether or not someone has a disability, if they are not productive enough to be paid a full wage for that job, you can make them an intern or apprentice and pay them less while you train them into it. This is what the sheltered workshops claim to be doing, anyway. Some people might say that this is pointless because it will have the same outcome, but organizations of people with disabilities say otherwise. The resounding message is that we want to be treated equally. If we are paid less because we are learning, that’s fine, but it should have nothing to do with our disability. In fact, many organizations of people with disabilities take no stance on whether a minimum wage should exist at all, but, if it is going to exist, it should not discriminate.
  • Actual rehabilitation programs: The types of interventions necessary for each disability vary, but there are rehabilitation programs for every kind. For example, blind people attend adjustment to blindness training at a residential training center like the state’s Ho’opono Services for the Blind.
  • Higher education: people with disabilities can go to college or trade school to prepare for a career of their choice.
  • Competitive, integrated employment: Instead of going into a subminimum wage job, it is entirely possible for many people with disabilities to walk right into a regular job.
  • Real pay in the sheltered workshop: Many sheltered workshops pay regular wages to workers with disabilities and do not hold the special wage certificate allowing them to pay subminimum wages.

For the first time in 81 years of advocacy, there is finally a congressional committee hearing on a bill to end the payment of disability-based subminimum wages.

The House Education and Labor Committee will hold a full committee hearing on the Transformation to Competitive Employment Act, H.R. 873, on Tuesday. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard has repeatedly cosponsored this legislation, and former Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa did, too.

I am hopeful that, with enough support from good leaders in Congress, the bill will pass and the practice will end.

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