THE STAGE IS SET FOR BROKEN PROMISES
In 2009 a story about men with intellectual disabilities working on an Iowa turkey farm laid bare to the general public something that professionals, families, and federal and state officials had long been aware of—and for the most part, complicit in. It would also come to light that the exploitation of the men in Iowa had been going on for thirty years, with a major newspaper story documenting the concerns in the 1970s. The long history of exploiting workers with disabilities stretches back to the early days of industrialization.
For decades the men in Iowa, about thirty in all, had been housed in dilapidated bunkhouses and made to work fourteen-hour days, earning less than a dollar an hour.1 Gutting, butchering, and performing artificial insemination were all part of the daily work routine. Some of the men tried to escape—and many did—only to be rounded up again by the owners of Henry’s Turkey Farm and trucked back to the grim lives they endured. “Verbal abuses included frequently referring to the workers as retarded, dumbass and stupid. The workers reported acts of physical abuse including hitting, kicking, at least one case of handcuffing, and forcing the disabled workers to carry heavy weights as punishment.”2 The supervisors at Henry’s Turkey Farm, also the workers’ purported caretakers, casually ignored injuries or pain. As the details unfolded, and the investigation picked up steam, it became clear that the owners of the turkey farm were operating as the men’s payee, receiving social security checks in exchange for substandard housing, and paying the men subminimum wages. It was legal to pay the men far less than the federal minimum wage under a law ironically titled the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which included policies that allowed for workers with disabilities to be paid significantly lower wages, an exception under a certificate from the US Department of Labor known as 14(c). The men had little choice in how they spent their days, when they worked, and for how long. All the men had various types of intellectual disabilities, a new term that has overtaken the derisive “mental retardation.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, people were clinically categorized as “idiots,” “morons,” and “savants.” Language—and the terms and phrases used inside the systems that purport to benevolently care for people—is an insidious tool used to justify subminimum wages; it also serves to keep the status quo in place. The practices and systems that often violate a person’s civil rights are the focus of this book, and we will pay special attention to the systematic application of terms within the disability industrial complex, especially how workers with disabilities are subjected to arbitrary measures of productivity that are used to keep expectations low and lifelong dependence on human-service systems high.
Without the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the men who were beaten, made fun of, and often harassed unmercifully would never have been at Henry’s Turkey Farm in the first place; they were there because of a strong financial incentive for the owners to exploit the men. Labor costs are the single most expensive part of operating a turkey farm; when the owners can pay as much as eight times less than the going rate for labor profitability is a certainty. At the same time the owners can benefit from the perception that they are “helping the disabled.” Along with the status of being the employees’ SSI payee, these owners were raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars without scrutiny, even though they should have been reviewed by the Department of Labor. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took on the case after a sister of one of the men filed a formal complaint regarding her brother’s paltry pay. The wage claims for each of the thirty-two workers ranged from $28,000 to $45,000 in lost income over the course of just their last two years before Henry’s Turkey Farm was shut down in February 2009. The employees should have been compensated at the average wage of $11–12 per hour, reflecting the rate of pay typically earned by workers without intellectual disabilities who performed the same or similar work.3
The trial brought by the EEOC was painful and embarrassing for the men, many of whom had been forced to stay on the turkey farm for decades. The descriptions of cruelty and abuse sounded much like indentured servitude. Bureaucrats took the stand and testified to having suspected the abuses and neglect; they insisted they had had a hard time getting anyone in state government to listen to their suspicions because the public believed the owners of the farm were doing a great public service by caring for the men. In the meantime, behind the closed doors of the bunkhouses, and under the secrecy of the paddocks, warehouses, offices and acres of Henry’s Turkey Farm, the horrors were numerous.
The men sometimes went into town for some rest and relaxation, eating at restaurants or catching a matinee, and the citizens viewed them as sweet and hardworking. The town had accepted the facade too, but there were cracks. Sometimes there were unexplained bruises, black eyes, a more pronounced limp. Still, it took nearly three decades for someone to blow the whistle. The state systems that oversee programs in the community are bureaucracies, often understaffed, isolated, fragmented, and operating in a manner unconnected to or unaware of the civil-rights legislation they are supposed to understand and implement. In gauging how well state and local programs are run, I sometimes simply mention the laws and court decisions of recent years. From CEOs to board members of nonprofits delivering disability employment services, I’m astounded how little the major players know about the regulatory guidance that pertains to the industry they work in. The 1999 Supreme Court decision in Olmstead v. LC was the most important civil-rights decision for people with disabilities in our country’s history. In Olmstead, the Supreme Court held that people with disabilities have a qualified right to receive state-funded supports and services in the community rather than in institutions. Yet too few people in power inside the disability industrial complex are even aware that the decision exists. The ubiquitous ADA and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014, which is supposed to restrict the use of subminimum wages, are also foreign to many who work in the field of disability and employment.
A federal judge in Iowa ordered the company to pay damages totaling $240 million (the largest verdict in the EEOC’s history) for disability discrimination and severe abuse to the thirty-two men he referred to as “mentally disabled employees” who had gutted turkeys at the West Liberty processing plant for $65 a month—41 cents an hour—for more than twenty years.4 US District Judge Harold Vietor issued the partial summary judgment against Hill Country Farms, d/b/a Henry’s Turkey Service, and owner Kenneth Henry in the Davenport District Court. Vietor found that Henry’s, whose corporate operations were based in Goldthwaite, Texas, had willfully violated federal minimum wage and overtime laws and was liable for unpaid wages and liquidated damages. In other words, it was still legal to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities, but Mr. Henry and his henchmen didn’t have the records to prove that their employees could be deemed less productive than “normal workers.” If they had, the underpayment of wages referenced in the lawsuit likely could have been dismissed. The case brought attention to how some workers with disabilities were paid in the United States, but Judge Vietor did not have the authority to make it illegal to pay workers with disabilities pennies on the hour; that would require legislation and, in the end, a comprehensive civil-rights battle that would take twists and turns to ultimately determine the fate of hundreds of thousands of workers with disabilities.
For professionals like Cary Griffin, the horrible story had a silver lining. “We believed it was the death knell of paying subminimum wages. Here was a decades-long abuse of a legal public law and it was clear to everyone we were finally going to get legislation that would overturn 14(c).” Griffin, along with countless other dedicated reformists, had been trying to change the disability employment system in the United States, a complex configuration of funding that includes Medicaid, Social Security, vocational rehabilitation, and state dollars, all of which are primarily used to segregate and keep workers with disabilities in prevocational day programs or sheltered workshops. It would be a surprise, though, just who would fight the most adamantly against reform.
While the courts dealt with Kenneth Henry, the Iowa men and their estranged families tried to recover and begin anew. There was indeed momentum in the debate around the ethical and moral considerations of allowing some of America’s most vulnerable citizens to be paid so horribly. On June 7, 2012, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB), one of the oldest and largest organizations of Americans with disabilities, took an assertive and well-versed lead in calling for a boycott of Goodwill Industries International, Inc., the nonprofit provider of employment services for people with disabilities and retailer, for its payment of subminimum wages to many of its workers with disabilities. It was a bold move, building upon the wage abuses of the men exploited at Henry’s Turkey Farm, which had been profiled in a report by the National Disability Rights Network in 2011. With strategic planning and a penchant for muckraking, the NFB went to work, hoping that timing, social media, and an outraged public would help fuel the reform.
Freedom of information requests filed by the NFB confirmed that some Goodwill Industries employees had been paid as little as twenty-two cents an hour. The NFB and more than forty-five other organizations supported legislation, the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act, H.R. 3086, which would have phased out and then fully repealed the eighty-year-old provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act that permits special 14(c) certificate holders to pay subminimum wages to workers with disabilities. There was hope, and the path forward to a substantial civil-rights win seemed well lit, even as the other side mounted its plans to lobby, counter the cries of reform, and stop any legislation from becoming law.
Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, took the opportunity to be unflinchingly assertive on the issue:
Goodwill Industries is one of the most well-known and lucrative charitable organizations in the United States, yet it chooses to pay its workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. While this practice is currently legal and many entities engage in it, many other nonprofit organizations have successfully transitioned to paying their employees the minimum wage or higher. That Goodwill Industries exploits many of its workers in this way is ironic because its president and chief executive officer is blind. Goodwill cannot credibly argue that workers with disabilities are incapable of doing productive work while paying its blind CEO over half a million dollars a year. Goodwill should be ashamed of such blatant hypocrisy. We are calling upon all Americans to refuse to do business with Goodwill Industries, to refuse to make donations to the subminimum-wage exploiter, and to refuse to shop in its retail stores until it exercises true leadership and sound moral judgment by fairly compensating its workers with disabilities.5
Dr. Maurer and the NFB were passionate about using Goodwill as the touchstone in the debate. The cultural timing was right as young people formed the Occupy movement and focused a great deal of their attention on the plight of minimum-wage earners, casting the slogan: “We ARE the 99%.” The progressive initiative was related to a global reaction to the deep economic recession triggered by the subprime mortgage crisis. By organizing a movement focused on how some of the least paid US workers were faring after the banking collapse, Occupy protesters and associated supporters were open to the plight of any worker. Dr. Maurer understood that these forces could be harnessed to tell another story of a forgotten and neglected workforce.
Dr. Maurer kept the intensity at high throttle, sensing that the attention and climate were conducive to bring about the change needed to merge what had been largely a disability-rights issue with the larger cultural workplace-rights movements spreading throughout the country. He asked one of his staffers, Anil Lewis, then director of strategic communications, to spearhead a campaign to raise awareness about subminimum wages—and ultimately to find a way to get legislation passed that would eliminate the 14(c) provision. Rose Sloan, one of the NFB’s government affairs specialists, had a knack for interviewing people. Ms. Sloan, a microphone in one hand and her cane in the other, approached workers picketing at Johns Hopkins Hospital for raises above the $11 an hour they were receiving. Making her way through the picket lines and the ancillary crowds, tapping her cane on the cement and approaching clusters of people, Ms. Sloan asked them if they knew some workers were paid so little.6 Worker after worker at Johns Hopkins expressed disbelief that simply having a disability could mean being subjected to subminimum wages. Goodwill sites in several states were boycotted with a succinct flyer that read, “Do you know Goodwill pays some of its workers as little as 22 cents per hour?” The proponents of maintaining subminimum wages for workers with disabilities soon despised Dr. Maurer and the NFB, claiming they were “just trying to stir this up all over again.” In Part III of this book, we will take a closer look at the Goodwill boycott, an act of rebellion that ushered in increased scrutiny by the US Department of Labor’s (USDOL) Wage and Hour division, the entity charged with overseeing organizations that hold 14(c) certificates.
Since the 1960s there had been numerous attempts to overturn the provisions of 14(c) that allowed for subminimum wages, but those advocating for systems change and the civil rights of workers with disabilities were thwarted at almost every turn. More harm was actually created with amendments to the 14(c) law in 1986, when the absurdly referenced “minimum subminimum” wage floor was removed and workers with disabilities could be paid as little as a few cents an hour. Prior to the 1986 amendments, workers under 14(c) were to be paid at least half the minimum wage, but now that rule had been successfully lobbied against. It became common for working adults with disabilities to bring home checks as miniscule as a few dollars a week for forty hours. This was one of the many ongoing bait-and-switch moves initiated by the professional lobbyists inside the disability industrial complex. In the words of one of the reformers in Georgia, the battle rages on: “I was awestruck when I first understood that organizations that were supposed to be helping people with disabilities had actually lobbied against the very legislation that would have prevented people with disabilities being paid subminimum wages,” says Nancy Brooks-Lane, who in the early 2000s led the movement to shutter sheltered workshops in metro Atlanta. She was met with hostility by staff, legislative representatives, and families. “It was as if we were the ones advocating to pay people pennies per hour. That move in ’86 to remove the subminimum wage floor set back the civil rights of workers with disabilities by decades. It’s still impacting us today. Low expectations have crept into every facet of disability services, from the capacity of a person to learn, to the way families view provider organizations. It’s truly a system predicated upon keeping people segregated in buildings so more billing can be amassed. Of course, there are some excellent agencies doing great work, but many aren’t even trying.”7
Both sides saw the developments of 2011, in the aftermath of the exposure of Henry’s Turkey Farm, as part of the same push and pull that had occurred over the last forty or more years. Still, the reformers believed they had momentum. Oregon was spending $30 million a year on funding sheltered workshops within the state. By the start of 2012, a young woman named Sparkle Green, living in Beaverton, Oregon, signed onto a class-action lawsuit, claiming that the state had ignored her desires to leave the sheltered workshop and its subminimum pay for a job she knew she could get and keep in the community if she were provided the support she needed. Sparkle and her coplaintiffs asserted they were being denied their civil rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Acts. Sparkle was being paid an average of just thirty-nine cents an hour though she had nearly perfect attendance and followed all the rules and instructions in the sheltered workshop. The other named plaintiffs were Angela Kehler, 48, who had been forced to remain in sheltered workshops since she was laid off from a successful job at a drugstore; Elizabeth Harrah, 32, who previously worked at McDonald’s and Safeway and was now at a sheltered workshop while waiting for assistance to return to competitive employment; and Zavier Kinville, 27, who was also at a sheltered workshop, awaiting an opportunity for integrated community employment. Kinville had volunteered in the community, where his favorite job was reading to children. These were not the snapshots of people too disabled to work; because these workers could legally be paid subminimum wages, the easiest thing to provide was just that. Along the way, the sheltered workshops that kept Green, Kehler, Harrah, Kinville, and thousands of others segregated and paid pennies on the dollar could bill for other services too—a common situation inside provider agencies, specifically those that serve people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in sheltered workshops. Perhaps a person doesn’t like folding and packaging and begins to slow down, get up from the workstations or simply stop altogether, a scenario most of us could imagine ourselves doing if a job didn’t hold our attention, especially if we were paid subminimum wages. This reaction sets in motion a professional verdict on productivity: Workers with disabilities doing these repetitive jobs, most often not by choice, are then labeled with new problems to fix, such as “poor attention,” “off task behavior,” or “work avoidance.” These new diagnoses are then inserted into the worker’s record, and a new set of interventions to ameliorate these issues is defined and billed for by the human-service agency. The providers of these services are thus incentivized to identify more and more problems. A bureaucrat at a state Medicaid agency told me, “It’s a billing scheme that’s been accepted as the norm. Show a person with Down syndrome to a state legislator and talk about how ‘these people’ need more funding. It’s a surefire way to fill the nonprofit agency coffers. There’s supposed to be rehabilitation, progress, a lessening of paid supports, but it’s actually the complete opposite.”
The class-action lawsuit in Oregon and another just beginning in 2013 in Rhode Island gave advocates even more hope that finally a bill would be introduced overturning the ability of United States Department of Labor to issue 14(c) certificates and outlawing subminimum wages for good. The awareness campaign was working, and before long the journalist Harry Smith went behind the scenes at a Montana Goodwill to investigate. The story ran on NBC’s Rock Center on June 21, 2013, five months after the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act had been introduced.
Harold and Sheila Leigland, both blind, reported that they had to undergo a “stopwatch test” to check their productivity every six months; inevitably their hourly wage went down. They were making $2.35 an hour hanging and sorting clothes at Goodwill, though both have college degrees. Goodwill records showed that while person after person with a disability was making from seventy-nine cents an hour down to twenty-two cents an hour, the regional Goodwill executives were raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay and bonuses. Goodwill’s top executives received more than $53.7 million in total compensation in 2011.8 The ten-minute piece, titled “Wage War,” garnered support from other disability-rights entities that had been working behind the scenes and with congressional members to craft a bill that would stop the exploitation of workers with disabilities. During the segment Ari Ne’eman of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) asked Harry Smith how well he himself would do if someone stood outside his office with a stopwatch to rate his productivity. Smith smiled in agreement, recognizing that workers with disabilities were systematically being subjected to standards most of us couldn’t pass.
Indeed, the segment on NBC was the first time many Americans had heard that it was legal to pay less than minimum wage to any worker. One of the “ninety-nine percent” picketers at Johns Hopkins Hospital, interviewed by Ms. Sloan, said, “That can’t be true. Is it? We’re out here protesting $11 an hour while there are some Americans making twenty-two cents an hour?” Ms. Sloan’s interviews and the Harry Smith piece on Goodwill were taking hold, bringing awareness to the issue, while the New York Times began an investigation of its own regarding how and why Henry’s Turkey Farm could happen. More momentum seemed to be on the side of the activists. Along with many others, I felt that it would only be a matter of time before a legislative fix would be crafted and make it out of the House of Representatives to the Senate.
The stage was set for a real debate around reforming the decades-old law that allowed workers with disabilities to be paid paltry and insulting wages. Reformists felt emboldened with the progress of the Oregon and Rhode Island lawsuits, as lawyers from the Department of Justice continued to find that sheltered workshops like the one where Sparkle Green worked in Beaverton routinely kept poor records, applied erroneous productivity standards, and paid workers with disabilities pennies an hour. The advocacy entities marshaled their resources to tweak the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act that would overturn the use of sub-minimum wages after a three-year phaseout and transform the country’s disability employment laws to fit a twenty-first-century economic mindset. The language of the bill included some specifics aimed at the nonprofits and their conflicting motivations:
While some employers possessing special wage certificates claim to provide rehabilitation and training to disabled workers to prepare them for competitive employment, the fact that such employers can pay their workers less than the Federal minimum wage gives them an incentive to exploit the cheap labor provided by their disabled workers rather than to prepare those workers for integrated employment in the mainstream economy. Many employers with a history of paying subminimum wages benefit from philanthropic donations and preferred status when bidding on Federal contracts. Yet they claim that paying minimum wage to their employees with disabilities would result in lack of profitability and forced reduction of their workforces.
These were exciting strides forward because the small crack that had always existed to get the average American’s attention regarding this issue was widening, and there seemed to be a fully open door now to walk through, to present legislation that was sorely needed. Everything looked primed and ready. The text of the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act was simple and direct, a perfect bill for those seeking reelection regardless of party affiliation. The bill emphasized that the practice of paying workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage dated back to the 1930s, when there were virtually no employment opportunities for disabled workers in the mainstream workforce. It argued that advancements in vocational rehabilitation, technology, and special education in the last four decades had provided workers with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disabilities, with greater opportunities than in the past. The text of the bill stressed that employees with disabilities, when provided the proper rehabilitation services, training, and tools, could be as productive as nondisabled employees, stating, “Even those individuals that are considered most severely disabled have been able to successfully obtain employment earning minimum wage or higher.”
The bill had ninety-seven cosponsors, seventy-three Democrats and twenty-four Republicans. It was the first time a bill had been crafted to overturn the practice of paying subminimum wages to Americans with disabilities. Before long, though, small organizations from all over the country, with benevolent, charitable names like Beloved Acres Rehabilitation, began to mobilize. These “community rehabilitation providers,” nonprofit organizations like Goodwill but much smaller, receive funds from federal and state governments to provide rehabilitation and training to workers with disabilities, most of them relying on the use of subminimum wages. Trade groups contacted their legislators, and the industry’s largest lobbying group, ACCSES, with the tagline “The Voice of Disability Service Providers,” located in Washington, DC, marshaled its membership and substantial political resources to advocate for keeping subminimum wages legal.
As the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, the National Federation of the Blind and other advocacy organizations provided information to legislators, including a spreadsheet of the organizations (nearly four thousand nationwide) that held subminimum wage certificates.9
The bill calling for fair wages for workers with disabilities and the phasing out of subminimum special wage 14(c) certificates under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was shelved. The effort by Dr. Maurer to shine a light on the practices of Goodwill would continue, however, with lines being drawn and lobbyists entrenched, each side vowing to stay the course. The battle would include players who would have to rationalize maintaining the public policy that created the abuses at Henry’s Turkey Farm and the same labor laws that continued to keep Sparkle Green captive in a sheltered workshop in Beaverton, Oregon, earning forty-eight cents an hour. The reformists were wounded and discouraged but felt they had at least now exposed the special interests that had in the past been mainly cloaked in the faux mission statements that claimed to be helping Americans with disabilities. As one activist put it, “If we can’t change this piece of public policy, the idea that workers with disabilities should be treated fairly, then what chance does the country have to fix any social issue?” There would be more proposed legislative proposals and political wrangling, of course, and money would be a central focus for trade groups interested in keeping the status quo.
It would be easy to characterize all people, organizations, and other stakeholder proponents of keeping the legal practice of paying workers with disabilities substandard wages as cruel, greedy, civil-rights violators. Indeed, after working so long inside the systems of these practices, then trying to change them from outside, I’m always reminding myself of my own bias—that anyone who desires to keep the DOL law in place is fundamentally flawed. The truth is there are advocates, parents, lawmakers, and social-service professionals who truly believe that keeping subminimum wages in place for workers with disabilities is best for everyone. I obviously disagree. The issue of disability, intellectual, developmental, and otherwise, instantly comes up against what it means to understand productivity in an economic system of capitalism. The notion that disability is natural, and that neurodiversity is a normal variation in the scope of humanity, are fundamental assumptions if our goal is to best utilize every person’s talents, even if it takes significantly changing our biases, practices, and workforce development systems. After all, if we are fortunate to live long enough, every human being develops natural disabilities.
Another truth in this story is what 14(c) represents in the powerful disability industrial complex, which embraces exceedingly low expectations of youth and adults with disabilities to learn, work, and live within typical communities. The history of subminimum wages represents the failure of human service agencies, personnel, and funding administrators to make use of creativity, local economics, problem solving, and community organizing. Paying subminimum wages to workers with disabilities is a symptom of a complex system of state and federal programs, policies, and practices that is woefully steeped in interventions that are unproven and rarely tested. In significant ways the billions of tax dollars spent every year in the United States on disability training and employment programs is similar to our healthcare system. We don’t know much about what goes into the costs of the services, or how focusing on more preventive interventions (work early, work often, and don’t segregate) can impact the outcomes.10 Like our healthcare systems, the disability industrial complex has corporate and bureaucratic interests that seem to amass control at the top and end up being the major focus of our elected officials. Senator Tom Cotton from Arkansas in particular has been adamant about his support for keeping sheltered workshops and subminimum wages alive and well.11 It is very easy to portray 14(c) as a kind of benevolent old law that still makes sense. When trade groups associated with large rehabilitation agencies appeal to their elected officials, it is often through photos and videos of older adults with Down syndrome working in a safe, clean, and respectful shop floor, smiles galore and hugs at the end of the day.
Perhaps the best description of the hazards and special interests related to the use of subminimum wages comes from a manual produced by SourceAmerica. One of the largest players in the disability industrial complex, SourceAmerica had been named NISH or the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped until thirty hours of WikiTapes were exposed, resulting in a scandal in 2015.12 In 1971 the US Congress passed the Javits-Wagner-O’Day Act (JWOD), a law to create employment for people with significant disabilities who might not otherwise be able to find work. Approximately $2.3 billion a year goes to SourceAmerica, intended to support a mandate that requires its contracts, many of them military-based, to employ workers with “severe disabilities”; these workers are supposed to make up 75 percent of the people hired. SourceAmerica, however, relies on a network of nonprofits that also use 14(c) subminimum wage certificates. SourceAmerica offers training to these organizations, as well as advice on a wide range of topics. The SourceAmerica manual provides information and tips for nonprofit organizations that pay their workers with disabilities subminimum wages, specifically information about how to document “why” the worker should be paid so little. The manual warns that if not correctly documented, the nonprofit could face “potential bad PR or exposure in the press and the community, resulting in possible lawsuits”; it goes on to lay out the most prevalent violations related to paying subminimum wages: improperly conducted time studies, failure to use prevailing wage rates, failure to maintain adequate records, and perhaps most disturbing, failure to adjust wages when a job changes or productivity improves.13 NISH, now SourceAmerica, cannot use its appropriated federal funds for lobbying, but the contracts they get, intended to employ people with severe disabilities, are not considered appropriated funds, allowing them to spend mightily. From 2008 to 2012, NISH/SourceAmerica reported spending $3.5 million on lobbying. One of the bills it lobbied against was none other than the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act.14
Eddie Glaude, Jr., the university professor of African American studies at Princeton University, reveals in his books our penchant for believing “the American lie.” Glaude exposes the undergirding of the American thought process: we adhere to a certain set of egalitarian virtues, only to constantly forsake them in the ways in which marginalized people are treated. That lie permeates the disability industrial complex; we say we love and care about people with disabilities, but we don’t legislate or advocate in a way that reflects those same values. This book traces the forces that have come together to create a duplicitous and confusing matrix of nonprofits, sometimes mired in segregation, abuse, and the justification of cheap labor, utilized by the very organizations that most Americans assume are on the side of people with disabilities.
We will hear from people who have worked for subminimum wages, as well as people who have been trapped inside the disability industrial complex. We will profile parents who believe their children have been further disabled by a system that values lifelong dependence in order to keep the agency doors open, through the use of unproven practices that are at odds with the way most young Americans learn to work and contribute to their respective communities. This is a story that includes lobbyists, income inequality between highly paid directors of human-service agencies and their workers, and the powerful narratives of citizens with disabilities as they fight hard for social justice, civil rights, and nothing short of emancipation itself.