Planning for Life

Lessons from Henry's Boys: The Rights of the Intellectually Disabled in the Workplace

Posted by Karen B. Mariscal on January 20, 2015

By Karen B. Mariscal
"Love and work...work and love, that's all there is." --Sigmund Freud

Work gives life meaning. We all want to contribute - it is part of being human. My 90-year-old grandmother scolds me to get out of the way so that she can do the dishes. My severely autistic son insists on emptying the dishwasher. But in this Internet age of technology, in which it seems that just about everything requires a college degree, finding jobs for the intellectually disabled is getting more and more difficult.

We as a society need to think a lot harder about how we can employ the thousands of intellectually handicapped adults who come of age every year. They need to work. Unfortunately the work they are going to find is probably not the kind of work the rest of us will want to do, and we need to find the right balance.

The New York Times recently published another piece on the so-called “Henry’s Boys” – men recruited from Texas institutions decades ago to eviscerate turkeys, only to wind up living in virtual servitude, without many basic rights. The Times located Leon Jones in South Carolina, who may be the last working member of Henry’s Boys. The article is heart-breaking, and shows what can happen to handicapped people who do not have anyone looking out for them. (Read: Guardianship and Special Needs Trusts are important!)

In its excellent expose that it published in March 2014 the Times goes to great lengths to describe the truly disgusting work that Henry’s Boys did to slaughter and butcher the turkeys, which is one of most compelling manifestos against factory farming that I have ever read. But the point is that no one should be forced to do that kind of work, and certainly not for the kind of pay the men were receiving.

The employers of Henry’s Boys may have thought that they were doing the men a favor by taking them out of institutions and giving them work. In a world where the men had no other options, they might be right. Turkey slaughtering aside, sometimes we need to remind ourselves that what seems like terrible work for you may not be terrible for them. Just because I don’t want to do a certain job all day does not mean it wouldn’t be great for my disabled son. But he needs to be compensated appropriately, especially if he is doing a job that others do not want to do.

In my son’s case, given his disabilities, being compensated appropriately means he makes less than minimum wage. Federal law allows this: An exemption to the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 allows businesses to obtain a special wage certificate, called Section 14 (c), to pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage, under the theory that such workers will produce less than workers who are not disabled. Although disability law advocates want this law repealed, the fact is it has allowed thousands of people to work and get paid, where they otherwise might have been considered unemployable.

Massachusetts is working to close all sheltered workshops in the next decade or so. This is an admirable goal, and one we support, because we believe it is in everyone’s interests to stop isolating intellectually handicapped people and get them out into the community. But it assumes that alternate forms of work can be provided. The policy would be disastrous to anyone who was happily employed at a workshop and is left sitting around with nothing to do.

Last summer, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act into law, which prohibits individuals with disabilities who are 24 or younger from working for below the minimum wage unless they try a competitive job first. This is a good step, although in my view it is unlikely to affect many people. Each of us needs to keep thinking about opportunities for the disabled to work and be productive, in whatever capacity they are capable.

Topics: special needs planning

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