Are Subminimum Wages for the Disabled Ever a Good Thing? Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I think what we’re seeing playing out in this Notes thread is the division within the autism community. It’s a divide (if I might over generalize for the sake of the discussion) between those focused largely on high-functioning autistic people and the support they need and those geared more toward low-functioning autistic people and the need for research.

Into that breach comes Ari Ne’eman, a person with autism and a mission: He’s a zealous advocate for services that support people on the spectrum. It was Ari who pointed me to Hillary Clinton’s remarks on the subminimum wage. I asked him to respond to the readers defending the exemption for certain employers who hire disabled people, namely in “sheltered workshops.” Ari directed me to two long posts he’s written, here and here, under the title “(Almost) Everything You Need to Know About Sheltered Workshops.” First, here’s Ari with an overview of the places we’re debating about:

Sheltered workshops are work centers which exclusively or predominantly employ people with disabilities. Many hold 14(c) certificates, so named after the section of the Fair Labor Standards Act allowing certain employers to pay disabled workers less than minimum wage.

Today, approximately 228,600 workers with disabilities are paid under 14(c), the majority of which are paid less than the minimum wage (a minority of employers also use 14(c) certificates to pay under the prevailing wage rate required by federal contracts). While there are more workers than that in sheltered workshops, the population covered under 14(c) tends to be the most focused on by advocates, as many garner little economic benefit from their work, some making less than a dollar an hour.

From Ari’s section, “What’s the problem with sheltered workshops?”:

At a basic level, sheltered workshops suffer from a fundamental conflict of interest.

As a service-provider, the workshop is tasked with helping a worker with a disability to pursue their preferred career and maximize their earnings. As an employer, the workshop has little incentivize to lose their most productive employees or add to their payroll costs. Make no mistake: even non-profit workshops are businesses, and like any business, they will seek to maximize their profits and economic viability.

Workers with the greatest likelihood of success in the general workforce are those that workshop supervisors are most loath to part with, as they are depended on to allow the workshop to deliver on its contracts. Workers in sheltered workshops lack any recourse to improve their economic prospects – because the people whose job it is to assist them in doing so have a vested interest in keeping them where they are.

Read the rest here. Speaking of disabilities in the workplace, one of my Twitter friends, Dennis Sanders, flagged a great post from his blog The Clockwork Pastor, where he chronicles being an openly gay African American pastor with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism. The post from Dennis is responding to “My Little Dandelion,” a note about my autistic son Tyler and an excellent Forbes piece from Thorkil Sonne on his dandelion analogy. Here’s Dennis:

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.) Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism. In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accommodate autistic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.

Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of.

Read the whole post here.