Mary O’Hara: poor pay and access to jobs should not be the norm

As in the UK, people with learning disabilities in the US are less likely to be in work now than they were 100 years ago. However, they may soon be entitled to the minimum wage

Waitress taking order outside

How is it possible that one worker is paid substantially more than another –despite both doing the same job?

The fact this question is still being asked in 2024 speaks volumes about where we are when it comes to employment and equal pay.

For decades, campaigners have advocated not only for access to good jobs and meaningful work for disabled people but also for fair, equal pay. If, as politicians so often say, work brings dignity and independence, shouldn’t that entail parity in access to jobs and wages?

Recent figures from the TUC suggest there is much more to be done. Non-disabled workers earn 14.6% more than those with disabilities. That’s a gap of £3,460 a year for someone on a 35-hour week. That’s a hell of a hit – if you’ve managed to find a job that is.

There is an additional level of inequity for learning disabled adults seeking employment. The Nuffield Trust reports that not only is the number of adults with a learning disability in work low, it’s been falling – from 6% in 2014-15 to 4.8% in 2021-22.

This situation flies in the face of what we know about the role work can play in people’s lives for financial stability and wellbeing.

Research published in 2023 by University of Cambridge history professor Lucy Delap sheds light on how employment historically compares with today. She concludes that employment rates of people with learning disabilities are 5-10 times lower than they were 100 years ago.

Delap unearthed evidence that the type of work they had was varied, and not within the narrow band of jobs their counterparts were expected to be in today.

She reports: “They were working in domestic service, all kinds of manufacturing, shops, coal mining, agriculture and local authority jobs.” She cautions that this was no “golden age”– people were exploited and, as today, frequently paid less than others – but this provides context for where we are today.

She says: “We need to have more bold ambition and stop being content with really marginal forms of inclusion.”

None of this is a uniquely British problem.

In the US, people with learning disabilities are less likely to be in work, more likely to live in poverty and, if in paid employment, it’s all too often part time or very low paid.

The US federal minimum wage has stood at $7.25 for more than a decade. In addition, the sub-minimum wage has been legal for decades, so adults with learning disabilities are often paid far below what anyone would deem reasonable or acceptable.

The type of employment was varied, and not within the narrow band of jobs their counterparts were expected to be in today

Kimberly Knackstedt, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the first director of disability policy for the Domestic Policy Council in the Biden administration, says that estimates vary but are always low (the average is roughly at $3.25 – about £2.63).

The vast majority of people being paid the sub-minimum wage (some 40,000-50,000 people) are in variations of sheltered workshops run by non-profits that fall under a legal exemption.

Low pay legalised

Section (14)c of the Fair Labor Standards Act 1938 has facilitated a sub-minimum wage under certain circumstances. Efforts to overturn it have hit roadblocks in Congress where getting anything progressive through is difficult.

Nevertheless, Knackstedt stresses, the tide for change is rising. Some states have abolished the sub-minimum wage while others are phasing it out. At federal level, Biden has shown a “personal commitment” to change, she adds.

Recent moves suggest momentum. Last March, the Department for Education announced a project to move disabled workers out of sub-minimum wage jobs. In September, faced with congressional intransigence, the Department of Labor said it would review the sub-minimum wage programme.

It’s heartening to see progress, wherever it takes place. The fact remains, however, that it is an indictment of our existing systems that poor pay and job inequity are problems at all.