In The Politics of Autism, I write:
Political conflict involves ideas and arguments for which the information is often murky, incomplete, interpretive, and open to manipulation. Just about everything concerning autism is subject to dispute. What is it? What causes it? How many different kinds of it are there? Who has it? What can we do about it? Is it even the right problem to be thinking about? All of these questions, and many others, are the stuff of bitter political battles. The stakes are high: according to one estimate, the national cost of supporting people with autism adds up to $236 billion per year. Of course, such numbers themselves entail controversy. An alternative perspective is that they do not represent the cost of autism, but rather the cost of discrimination against people who have it, and the failure to help them lead independent lives.
Minnesota would become the fourth state in the nation to prohibit employers from paying people with disabilities less than the state’s minimum wage, under a proposed measure that would phase out the decades-old practice by 2024.
The legislation, which passed a state House committee this week, would force dramatic changes at approximately 100 centers across the state, known as sheltered workshops, that benefit from a loophole in federal labor law that allows them to pay people with disabilities based on their productivity, rather than a fixed hourly rate. In many cases, their pay amounts to just cents an hour for basic tasks, such as packaging merchandise, scrubbing toilets and shredding paper. These state-subsidized workshops, which provide a broad range of support services, employ nearly 10,000 people with disabilities — among the most of any state, according to Minnesota workforce officials.
Proponents of the legislation maintain that a gradual phasing out of subminimum wages would enable the state to avoid costly sanctions and would give state workforce officials and families time to develop alternative employment options in the community. “Everyone deserves to earn a minimum wage,” said Jillian Nelson, policy advocate for the Autism Society of Minnesota. “But we can’t just kick people to the streets.”
Still, the measure faces vigorous opposition from many parents of people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities, who fear their adult children will lose support services and have nowhere to go if the local workshops close. In many smaller towns, these parents maintain, the workshops — sometimes called “day activity centers” — are the only option for community engagement and employment. In some rural communities, workshops are also the primary source of transit, shuttling people to and from work and activities in the community.They also provide a vital source of social interaction for people who would otherwise be stuck spending their days at more isolating group homes, parents maintain.