A couple of weeks ago, Luau sent me a link to something that he said I needed to see. “Wait though,” he said, “until you’ve got the stomach for it.”

Knowing that I would probably never really have the stomach for it, I dove right in. This is what he had me watch.

Wage Against the Machine

Yes, Samantha Bee said, “Give me a picture of a person whose work would be worth $2 an hour,” and yes, Mr. Schiff responded with, “You know, somebody who might be, maybe somebody who is … uh … ya know, what is the politically correct word … uh … ya know, uh … for, ya know, mentally retarded … what’s the new word?” And yes, he also said that he “believes in the principles that the country was founded on,” and then went on to say, “I’m not going to say that we’re all created equal. You’re worth what you’re worth.”

I was horrified on too many levels to even bother with the hypocrisy of claiming to subscribe to our nation’s founding principles while contradicting, uh … ya know .. uh … this one …


{image of the Declaration of Independence highlighting the first sentence of the second paragraph which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”}

To say that I don’t agree with this man’s ideology is sort of like saying that I don’t believe that the sun is made of butterscotch, because, well, it’s just not. And if it were it would melt and we’d all be covered in butterscotch. Then again, maybe that’s what killed the dinosaurs. Maybe someone should look into that. Anyway, moving on. The sun isn’t made of butterscotch and raising the minimum wage isn’t going to impede job growth. Now you know where I stand. I have no doubt that some of you would be happy to debate this with me, but it’s not really the point of this post. At all.

The point of this post is that if we ARE going to raise the minimum wage, as the President has promised to do this week via executive order, are we, as the civilized society that we claim to be, going to allow him to exclude people with disabilities from that raise? To put it another way, are we going to further institutionalize Mr Schiff’s idea that while everyone else is working for a living wage, the disabled should be satisfied simply with the pride of working?

In a blog post amid the disastrous press following Mr Schiff’s appearance, he wrote the following in order to contextualize his comments.

I further explained that since such individuals typically live with their parents or other caretakers, they are not working to support themselves or anyone else. They are working for the self-esteem associated with having a job — the pride of working and making a contribution. Many of the jobs they perform may seem mundane to those of normal intelligence, but they are often the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities. I pointed out that if the federal minimum wages were to apply to them, a great many of those opportunities would vanish. Others may disagree, but I believe a job for such a person at $2 per hour is better than no job at all.

While I’d really like to write Mr Schiff off as an ignorant and outrageously insensitive zealot, his thinking is actually not only far more pervasive than we’d like to acknowledge, it’s actually supported by the law.

Screen shot 2014-02-08 at 8.31.19 AM

{Click on the image to read the text of the law exempting disabled workers from the minimum wage on the US Dept of Labor’s website}

I barely know where to begin to peel back the layers here. I suppose I’ll simply begin at the beginning.

“… since such individuals typically live with their parents or other caretakers, they are not working to support themselves or anyone else.”

He’s (sort of) right. People with disabilities do often live with their parents. Because without the ability to make a fair wage for their labor there are few other viable choices. There’s also no opportunity to save for the future, for the time that their parents inevitably die before them, as parents do. There’s also no opportunity to spend the money that they don’t earn, putting it right back into the economy and helping the Job Creators create more jobs. Nope, none of that can happen. Because pride doesn’t pay bills. But, according to Mr Schiff, that’s not really the point because ..

“They are working for the self-esteem associated with having a job — the pride of working and making a contribution. Many of the jobs they perform may seem mundane to those of normal intelligence, but they are often the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.”

As the mother of an autistic child a human being, this one is an emotional land-mine for me. I simply can’t wrap my head or my heart around the idea that my work is more valuable than my daughter’s because it might mean something different for me than it does for her. I’m not even getting into just how offensive the idea that a job would mean something more to her than it does for me, because my heart might explode right here if I do. If valuing labor based on enjoyment doesn’t strike any economist, or human being, as a giant butterscotch covered dinosaur, I don’t know what will.

Remember the old riddle, “Which weighs more: a pound of feathers or a pound of steel?” A pound is a pound no matter what it takes to make it, or how much it meant to the now-naked bird. Work is work. No human being is worth more or less than any other.

The Collaboration for the Promotion of Self Determination (CPSD) is a coalition of twenty-one disability rights groups. On Feb 4th, they sent the following letter to the White House and the Department of Labor. CPSD’s members were also joined by a number of broader civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Japanese American Citizens League and the Service Employees International Union.

Dear Mr. President and Secretary Perez:

As national partners of the Collaboration to Promote Self-Determination (CPSD), we were pleased to read that you will soon be issuing an executive order to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers. At the same time, we are profoundly concerned by recent statements suggesting that workers with disabilities employed by government contractors with 14c certificates will not be covered by the new $10.10 minimum wage.

CPSD is an advocacy network of 21 national organizations who have come together to bring about a significant modernization of the federal adult system of services and supports for persons with disabilities.

As you know, many workers with disabilities are employed by government contractors, particularly those associated with the AbilityOne Commission. Government contractors who hold 14c certificates from the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division have been permitted to pay less than minimum wage to workers with disabilities. We believe that all Americans should be afforded minimum wage protections, including those workers with disabilities.

Recent statements from the administration have suggested that employees with disabilities working for federal contractors with 14c certificates will be excluded from the new $10.10/hour minimum wage and will only benefit to a minimal degree in so far as their subminimum wage compensation will now be calculated as a portion of the higher minimum wage required by the executive order. We believe this is fundamentally unjust.

Mr. President and Secretary Perez, all employees of federal contractors should mean all employees, regardless of disability status. In the last several years, we have seen commitments from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and Oregon to phase out the use of sheltered workshops – the primary setting where disabled workers are paid less than minimum wage. Vermont ended the use of both sheltered workshops and subminimum wage employment of people with disabilities in 2003. We believe this progress shows that it is both economically sound and morally just to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the same wage protections as those without. While a broader end to subminimum wage and Section 14c may require an act of Congress, we believe that the Administration has the authority to end the use of subminimum wage for employees of federal contractors immediately, through the use of the same executive order establishing the new $10.10/hour requirement.

Thank you again for your leadership and for serious consideration of our comments.  We stand ready to work with you to align federal policies and financing to achieve the valued goal of integrated, competitive employment for all citizens with disabilities. It is our sincere hope that you do not leave the disability community behind in your forthcoming executive order.


American Civil Liberties Union 
Association of Persons in Supported Employment 
Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
Autism Society
Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
Disability Power & Pride
Institute for Community Inclusion 
Japanese American Citizens League
National Association of the Deaf
National Association of State Directors of Developmental Disabilities Services
National Coalition for Mental Health Recovery
National Council on Independent Living
National Down Syndrome Congress
National Fragile X Foundation
National Disability Institute
National Disability Rights Network
National Organization on Disability
National Organization of Nurses with Disabilities
Not Dead Yet
Physician Parent Caregivers
Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities
Service Employees International Union
United Spinal Association

Additional Signatories Added Since Release: 

Good Jobs Nation/Change To Win
Sibling Leadership Network
*emphasis mine

The letter began to gain some steam, as well it should. But steam that threatens the status quo brings opposition. And opposition to the voices of the disabled mean that we, the people who love and support them, who believe in equality of opportunity, who believe that “workers” means “workers”, not “non-disabled workers,” we, who believe that a pound is a pound and humanity is not graded, must speak out.

Yesterday, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), sent out the following plea for help.

URGENT Action Alert: Contact the White House and Department of Labor

Our letter urging President Obama and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to include federal contractors with disabilities who make less than minimum wage in the President’s forthcoming $10.10/hour minimum wage executive order has gained momentum. We’ve been joined by labor groups, like AFL-CIO, SEIU and Change to Win, as well as a broad array of disability and civil rights organizations, such as the ACLU, the Collaboration for the Promotion of Self-Determination, the National Down Syndrome Congress, and many others representing people with disabilities, our families, and the providers that serve us. Unfortunately, lobbyists for the sheltered workshop industry are now mobilizing to try and exclude people with disabilities from President Obama’s forthcoming executive order and the $10.10/hour minimum wage protections it will bring employees of government contractors

As the sheltered workshop lobby begins to push back against the turning tide, we must make sure that our voices are louder. Now, more than ever, it is important for self-advocates, our families, and providers who want to see disabled people have equality of opportunity write emails to the White House and the Secretary of Labor.


Please feel free to use language from the joint letter and to TELL YOUR OWN PERSONAL STORY. Fear is a powerful factor for many sheltered workshop proponents, but the vision of a better economic future and a life of one’s own for those with disabilities is stronger.

Sample talking points:

  • We urge you to include workers with disabilities, including those now making less than minimum wage under Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, in the President’s forthcoming executive order on a $10.10/hour minimum wage for government contractors.
  • We are seeing tremendous progress in moving people out of sheltered workshops and into integrated employment. In the last few years, New York, Oregon, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have committed to phasing out sheltered work. Vermont ended sheltered workshops and subminimum wage in 2003 and today enjoys twice the national average of integrated employment for people with disabilities.
  • “All government contractors” should mean all government contractors, including those with disabilities.
  • We thank the President and Secretary Perez for working to increase economic opportunity for all Americans, and we urge them to make certain that people with disabilities are not excluded from those efforts.

In your emails to the White House, please contact:

Claudia Gordon (Claudia_L_Gordon@who.eop.govand  “cc”:
Valerie Jarrett (

In your emails to the Department of Labor, please contact:

Matthew Colangelo (   and “cc”
ODEP Assistant Secretary Kathy Martinez (

Please take the time to do this. For my daughter. For everyone like her.

For the ability to continue to call ourselves a civilized society.


Ed note: I have barely scratched the surface of this issue. Among a thousand other implications, I’d ask you to think about these:

What it means for human beings to have to weigh disclosing their disability to others in order to get the support and understanding that they desperately need to live against the money that they also desperately need to live. It’s not a choice that anyone should have to make. 

Where people with disabilities, without the ability to make and save money, will live when their parents die.

Why – really, truly why – we believe that one human being’s work is worth less than another’s. 

 Please raise your voice and then pass this on to someone else who will too. Please. This isn’t who we are.


{image is of Brooke holding a sign that she made. It says, “Please.”}

10 thoughts on “value

  1. Amen. The same folks who would argue against paying a disabled worker a living wage are sadly the same folks who refuse to provide funding for services for those same disabled people because, well shouldn’t they just get a job to support themselves…… Round and round in circles we go. Well said.

  2. The interesting thing to me is that the arguments Mr. Schiff makes against paying “mentally retarded” employees minimum wage are the same arguments that were made for not paying women the same rate as men. I think only the most tone-deaf Congress person would make those arguments (gender-wise) now for fear of the backlash. And the same reasons women’s groups have fought for equal pay for men and women apply to this fight.

    And if “enjoyment” is the basis for what one is paid (one gets paid less if one enjoys one’s job) — that is such the antithesis of what everyone else is told. How many books/magazine articles/tv show segments have spent time on giving advice on finding work that you love to do? Or highlighting people who were stuck in jobs they hated then left to do the thing they love and now have a much better quality of life? Not mention how patronizing that is.

    I’m going to leave it at that. It makes my head and heart hurt to think about it. But I will try to get something sent out to the people who need to hear it this weekend.

  3. Many of the jobs they perform may seem mundane to those of normal intelligence, but they are often the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.

    I’m actually reading this differently than “people with disabilities enjoy those jobs more than people without disabilities do”. He might have meant it that way, I don’t know. But how I’m reading it is, “they enjoy those jobs more than any other aspect of their lives”. WELL SURPRISE SURPRISE. When you’re treated as less-than, as undeserving, as a burden, of course you’re going to enjoy the one thing that people will still condescendingly allow you to do. Of course you’re going to enjoy participating in something, creating something, having connections with people outside of your family. BECAUSE IT’S THE ONLY THING YOU’RE ALLOWED TO DO. If people with disabilities were a true part of society, they would not find those jobs any more enjoyable than a person without disabilities. Don’t assume they don’t have the intellectual capacity to know that their work is regarded as worth less than other people’s work.

  4. Pingback: Dark Horse Shining | Little Lady Chirp

  5. Oh this makes my heart hurt. It is so wrong, everything about it is wrong. I had no idea, thank you for the education. It makes me sick.

  6. Jess – you asked awhile back how you could help the FASD community feel included. If you feel it is appropriate – please comment on the recent budget changes that have cut funding for the SAMHSA, which runs the FASD Center for Excellence from $8 Million down to $1 Million. I am so angry and upset I can hardly think no less write coherently. But this is just wrong on so many levels. People need to make noise about this. They need to demand a return of funds. When not supported properly through the school system 43% of individuals affected by FASD will drop out. About 50% of them will attempt suicide. Without a full education and appropriate supports, 70% will be institutionalized in their life for alcohol and drug problems, mental health reasons, or crimes committed due to their impulsivity and vulnerability. 80% will not be able keep a job increasing their risk for homelessness, depression, substance abuse, etc. Men and women with FASD are much more likely to be involved in exposed pregnancies creating the next generation of victims. It becomes a vicious cycle and it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right interventions and support most people with FASD can learn, they can be gainfully employed, and they can have full and productive lives. If you don;t think this is appropriate for inclusion here, any help you can offer on how to effectively mobilize people to fight this ridiculous decision would be gratefully received!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s