Limiting work options for people with disabilities raises equity issues 

by Linda Moore  Be quiet, go along and trust us because we know better. This is the attitude behind a […]

by Linda Moore 

Be quiet, go along and trust us because we know better. This is the attitude behind a steady push to take away work options from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

People with a limited ability to advocate for themselves, make their voices heard and share their needs and desires are being set aside, first in the national debate on this issue, and now in Minnesota. The 2021 state task force on the elimination of subminimum wages is one example.  

One would think that adults with disabilities who use this commensurate wage or special minimum wage work option, and their family members would be included on the task force. Think again. After the new task force was lumped into a human services omnibus bill in 2021 and passed with no debate or public input, people are now fighting to change the legislation just to get a seat at the table.  

Why was this obvious oversight allowed in the first place? I have a theory. Those who claim to know better don’t want to debate their position. They would prefer to leave out the people who are being impacted, because such people will not give the answers they want.  

Even some disability service providers who applied to the committee were told that they must be in favor of eliminating subminimum wage in order to participate. It was “not a place for debate.” 

About 6,700 Minnesotans with disabilities use this work option. They make this choice to work, to do something they value.  

Some start out earning commensurate wage and then go on to other jobs earning minimum wage or often more after they get a handle on work expectations. For others, that is not a realistic option and that’s OK. They should not be left behind. 

And, still others with disabilities go the other way, stepping back from higher paying jobs as their health needs change. 

The anti-choice crowd knows, like I know, that in studies and state programs where people with disabilities and their families are asked, 90-plus percent are in favor of keeping the commensurate wage option. But this doesn’t matter to those opposing choice. They only double-down in their position and work to find ways around the opposition. 

Actions inspire reactions, and that’s part of why we have the new A-Team Minnesota group to help educate leaders about why choices need to be preserved. Watch for more from them soon. 

In past years, when people attended hearings at the Capitol on this issue, there was an obvious observation that could be made. High-functioning individuals with disabilities would give the anti-special minimum wage testimonies and people with greater needs and their family members or staff would speak in favor of keeping the option.  

Most of those who use it want it preserved and a vocal group that does not use it wants to take it away. If a regular job works for me, it should work for you too, right? Unfortunately, the market-based economy and minimum wage requirements exclude some people with disabilities. So, an accommodation is made to allow people to work based on their ability and be paid based on what they can produce.  

Some call this the first accommodation for people with disabilities. It’s fair to the worker and the employer, and it allows people to participate in the workforce who otherwise could not. The vast majority of the people who need this option are receiving long term supports that include food, clothing and housing.  

Anyone looking at this honestly with an open mind would realize the intention is not to “lift people out of poverty” or for people to support themselves or a family with these wages. At our day service and employment facilities, we use this kind of work as therapy.  

Someone might not be able to experience the joys of working competitively, so we have the next best thing. People who want something different are free to pursue other work opportunities and be supported on the job. 

The real beauty of our system in Minnesota is found in the range or array of options we can provide. From support for independent job placements to work crews, in-center work, enrichment programming, education and work exploration, there’s something for everyone. People will also jump back and forth between services as their preferences and life circumstances change. 

As a service provider with a 37-year history of serving people with disabilities with a variety of needs, I know from experience that families want choices, not lip service. They want us to listen to them, and to know they have been heard.  

We may not have the answers to their every need or want, but we should have access to positive, life-changing services. That is what community is all about, helping one another and understanding the other person’s perspective, though it may be different from our own. 

Change for change’s sake that caters to popular opinion rather than facts and real-life impacts is not positive or helpful. Let’s not give up in our work to support people with disabilities to live the best lives they can. 

Linda Moore is executive director and a licensed psychologist at Chrestomathy, Inc. Chrestomathy, Inc. is a Twin Cities-based provider of day and employment services, including behavioral support necessary to ensure success for clients with complex needs. 

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