The Intellectually Disabled Employment Crises

Back in October of 2017, during a Senate Health Committee hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren bemoaned that people with severe intellectual disabilities are being paid a “sub-minimum wage”.

“It’s legal to pay Americans with some types of disabilities 33 cents an hour. You read that right. A worker with an intellectual or developmental disability can be paid pennies on the dollar for doing exactly the same job as a worker without a disability.”

– Sen. Elizabeth Warren

2While Sen. Warren may have been shocked by this revelation, many Americans who have family members with severe intellectual disabilities know the sub-minimum wage issue very well. This isn’t new legislation, in fact the practice of paying workers with severe intellectual disabilities has been in place since the 1930’s… and it is completely legal.

Under section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) employers can pay a wage far below the federal minimum wage if that employee is affected by a severe intellectual disability. The wages earned by these employees are calculated by individual productivity. This can mean that some employees who are severely affected by their disability may be paid less than the minimum wage, while others may even be paid less than one dollar per hour.

As stated above, the practice of paying a sub-minimum wage was started back in the 1930’s to incentivize employers to hire people with disabilities in manufacturing industries. Today, most people with severe intellectual disabilities who earn a sub-minimum wage work in settings called “sheltered workshops”. These workshops typically hire workers with disabilities to complete highly repetitive and low skill tasks such as sorting mail or shredding paper.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren believes this practice is morally atrocious, and she is not totally wrong. The system we have in place now is easy to manipulate and can be exploited (one program in Illinois was caught paying their employees with gift cards). I have personally visited many sheltered workshops and some of them can be extremely dreary places that are poorly managed.

Sen. Warren believes that the government should force these organizations to pay their employees the federal minimum wage. While higher wages always sound nice, some families and employers worry that a higher wage would force these workshops to close, thus removing the only job opportunities individuals with severe intellectual disabilities have. Their fears are not unsubstantiated.


While the American unemployment rate is at historic lows, the trend has not benefited those with intellectual disabilities. The unemployment rate among people with intellectual disabilities range from 60% to as high as 90%. The current work environment in America is non-accessible to the majority of these workers and the wrong legislation may inadvertently destroy the only workplace where people with intellectual disabilities can find employment.

While these workshops are less than ideal, they do offer a striking level stability to their workers. Three quarters of adults who are employed by these workshops have maintained employment for over three years and only half have been able to find employment elsewhere.

While these workshops are not without merit, it would be faulty to believe they, and their low wages, are the solution. In fact, the problem with these workshops is not low wages at all. What Sen. Warren and others in government have largely ignored is the real crises looming on the horizon.

Raising wages would probably close many of these workshops, but the real threat facing workers with intellectual disabilities is automation.

Rates of industries becoming automated are at an all-time high and there are no signs of the trend slowing. As I mentioned earlier, workers with intellectual disabilities are employed to do tasks that are highly repetitive and any task that is highly repetitive, by its nature, is at risk of automation. Unlike other Americans who can go through job retraining programs to learn highly technical skills to remain competitive in the labor market, Americans with severe intellectual disabilities are about to lose the only form of employment they will ever be qualified for.

If you think that’s scary, this crisis is about to get even worse.

Again, the unemployment rate among people with intellectual disabilities ranges from 60% to 90%. Another half million young adults with autism are expected to enter the US workforce over the next decade alone. Of course, not all children with autism are severely disabled, but this static should give everyone pause. As a nation we are in no position to care for these vulnerable Americans. We are still relying on legislation that passed in the 1930’s (over 80 years ago) to help people with intellectual disabilities find employment. What happens when automation destroys the only employment these individuals have? A significant segment of our population will become even more isolated from society and will not have access to the dignity of work.


This is not an attack on automation, to fight against automation it to stick your head in the sand, this is an attack on the US Government who has failed to protect the most vulnerable among us.

Public schools need to completely reinvent how we teach students with intellectual disabilities with a primary focus on job preparedness. It is a level of negligence that borders on a moral atrocity that public schools do not offer early intervention therapies and that the embrace of Applied Behavior Analysis has been timid at best. Local state legislators can start passing insurance reform law that helps parents gain access to early intervention (look at Steven’s Law in Arizona as a starting point).

Yes, I am opposed to abolishing the sub-minimum wage, but only because it will speed up the rate these jobs will be replaced by automation, and it is clear, as a nation, we are in no way prepared for that.

-J.A. Callaway