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Show Support for Adults on the Autism Spectrum by Promoting Fair Wages

This April, the federal Administration on Community Living has announced that it will be celebrating Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month.

As an autistic self-advocate, I’m pleased that the administration has acknowledged the need to go beyond awareness to acceptance of people on the autism spectrum in every aspect of community life, including after the transition to adulthood.

For many, one of the most important parts of the transition to adulthood is finding meaningful employment.

However, people on the autism spectrum still face immense barriers to finding good jobs in their communities.

According to the National Core Indicators survey of state developmental disabilities agencies, only 13 percent of autistic people who were receiving services from the participating agencies had a job in the community. Of those who did have a job in the community, only 16 percent earned above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, and only a tiny 6 percent earned more than $10 per hour. (By contrast, in early 2015, President Obama announced that workers on new federal contracts, including workers with disabilities, must be paid at least $10.10 per hour.)

The reason so many of us earn less than the federal minimum wage dates back to 1938, when the first federal minimum wage law was passed. At the time, it was commonly assumed that some people with disabilities could not be “productive” enough to earn a full minimum wage and that it would be best for them to work in so-called “sheltered workshops” and receive productivity-based wages.

In recent years, however, this assumption has been challenged.

Through the Employment First movement, people with disabilities and their allies have been demanding access not only to work, but to work for fair wages, in the community.

The assumptions we had in 1938 - that people with disabilities needed to be “sheltered” due to their supposedly lower value as workers - are outdated and harmful.

In the past decades, states have been pioneering models of supported and customized employment that enable people with very significant support needs to achieve long-term employment in the community, at wages that are comparable with those of non-disabled workers doing the same job.

But there’s a long way to go.

Over 240,000 people with disabilities are reported to be earning less than minimum wage, in some cases only pennies per hour.

That’s why it’s so important that this past March, the AbilityOne Commission (which oversees programs that employ more than 45,000 people with disabilities) announced its support for phasing out sub-minimum wages.

The AbilityOne Commission oversees the organizations participating in the Javits-Wagner O’Day Act, a federal law requiring the government to buy many of its supplies - such as pens and notepads - from nonprofits that hire primarily people with disabilities. The law was originally passed in 1938 - the same year as the federal minimum wage law that contained an exception for people with disabilities. Originally designed to promote the employment of blind workers, it now covers a range of disabilities, including people on the autism spectrum.

Today, about 90% of the workers in AbilityOne programs earn more than minimum wage (the President’s 2015 executive order requiring contractors to pay workers at least $10.10 per hour did not apply to manufacturing contracts, which include many AbilityOne contracts).

Our goal should be 100%.

As an advocate for inclusion, I also hope that AbilityOne contractors will continue to explore new employment models, including models that enable people with disabilities to work in jobs that are integrated into their communities.

I hope that in the future, people on the autism spectrum will graduate from high school with confidence that they will find acceptance in all parts of their communities - including a job that is fulfilling, meaningful and that pays them fairly alongside people without disabilities.

With each program that commits to paying fair wages to people with disabilities, we will come closer to that goal.  


About the Author: Samantha Crane is the Director of Public Policy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Her work includes advocacy for greater inclusion of autistic individuals in school, work, community life, and health care settings.



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