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People with disabilities are still subjected to sub-minimum wages

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Anyone in my family can attest to the fact that I have never been a history buff. Sure, I could memorize dates for tests and write out pretty in-depth flashcards, but learning about isolated moments in the story of our existence has been something I have struggled with throughout my education. Yet, I have always loved the moment that comes after a year of gathering knowledge on different events, where I can look back on what seemed like random tidbits in time and piece them together to understand the significance of our country’s victories. The Declaration of Independence, women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and so many more moments of which I am so proud of the advocates that took a stand for the injustices that they saw in the world around them.

With so much progress, it is difficult to believe that some basic rights are still not being met for our citizens, but unfortunately there are still battles to be fought. I feel grateful to have this outlet to help advocate for the issues that we still need to address in our community.

Minimum wage is understood to be a baseline payment standard for individuals in the labor force that is set on both the state and federal level to protect workers from unfair treatment. On the surface, this implementation sounds like an incredible step forward in preventing discrimination against minority groups, and for some, it has been. However, we have not stopped to think about the people that we left behind when taking this step forward as a nation.

With the exceptions of Alaska, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont, the city of Seattle and the city of Reno, workers with disabilities are excluded from minimum wage protections due to the regulation put forth by Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a provision that has been in place since 1938. Not only does this law allow employers to disregard the minimum wage, but it actually permits employers to pay people with disabilities less than a penny for their work. Through applications submitted to the United States Department of Labor, employers can receive wage certificates that base payment off of assessments of productivity. Think of a time when you received terrible service at a store or experienced an employee slack off; these individuals are not being threatened to receive less than minimum wage, but for people with disabilities, this possibility is not only a threat but a reality.

These regulations are rooted in low expectations in terms of what people with disabilities are able to accomplish compared to their able-bodied counterparts. An assumption of low capability results in poor results on productivity assessments, which in turn justifies an employer’s desire to pay them subminimum wages. Every six months, this process is repeated with little hope of better outcomes for the worker.

I grew up in the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio, where I learned that I could be anyone I wanted to be. When I was younger, this meant the possibility of someday breaking through as the next world class athlete or top recording artist, and throughout my childhood, I constantly changed my career interests. In middle school, I lost the entirety of my vision due to an unexpected retinal detachment and other complications with my eyes, and although there were some days when I did not believe it, my friends, family and educators remained adamant that I could still become whomever I wanted to be.

As I finish my freshman year at Stanford, I am beyond grateful to have been blessed with so many opportunities to grow personally, academically and professionally. It is because of the confidence my community had in my success that I am able to pursue my dreams. But this confidence should not be given to just a select few. It should be a right for all. A minimum wage only serves its purpose if it protects all individuals from the detriments of discrimination, and at this point in time, a significant subgroup of our population is not being given that faith.

Although I might not be one for the history textbooks, I am an admirer of our country for proving time and time again the power of collective action. Each day, we are making history in the choices we make as a society, and it is time that we bring people with disabilities out of the confines of low expectations and use our greater forces to move toward a brighter, more inclusive future.

Contact Trisha Kulkarni at trishak8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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