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Ableism, Racism, and Subminimum Wage

By Carli Friedman, CQL Director of Research

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) exclaims “everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work” (n.p.). Yet, many people with disabilities in the United States are paid subminimum wage as a result of Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Section 14(c) allows the government to grant employers ‘special wage certificates’ which allow them to pay people below state or federal minimum wages. As a result, a significant number of people with disabilities in the United States are currently working for one to two dollars a day (National Disability Rights Network, 2011; Rogan & Rinne, 2011).

Research indicates that subminimum wage is not only discriminatory but also indicates that people who were paid subminimum wage demonstrate their ability to work successfully in the community on normal wages once their job is appropriately matched with their skills (Butterworth, Hall, Hoff, & Migliore, 2007; Whittaker, 2005). In addition, supported employees in integrated employment not only make more money, they actually also generate fewer costs for organizations and cost businesses less than those in sheltered workshops (Cimera, 2011).

The aim of this study conducted by CQL | The Council on Quality and Leadership was to examine how prejudice impacts the use of special wage certificates and subminimum wage across the United States. To do so, we analyzed data about the use of special wage certificates and prejudice data from 4.70 million (M) people.

Our analysis of special wage certificate data and prejudice data from millions of people revealed that the more ableist and racist a region of the United States was, the more workers there were that were paid with subminimum wage, regardless of the region’s wealth, size, or political orientation (see figure below).

Relationship Between Ableism, Racism, and Subminimum Wage Certificates

A bar chart showing the relationship between ableism, racism, and subminimum wage certificates

“Our findings revealed racism is a factor in use of subminimum wage certificates to the same degree, if not more, than ableism. The intertwining of ableism, racism, and subminimum wage is related to the long history of ableism and racism in the United States, particularly when it comes to employment… This study adds to decades of research, including from the Department of Labor and other government agencies, as well as calls from advocates with disabilities, highlighting that subminimum wage practices are discriminatory” (Friedman, 2019, n.p.).


  • Butterworth, J., Hall, A., Hoff, D., & Migliore, A. (2007). State and international efforts to reform or eliminate the use of sub-minimum wage for persons with disabilities: University of Massachusetts Boston: Institute for Community Inclusion.
  • Cimera, R. E. (2011). Supported versus sheltered employment: Cumulative costs, hours worked, and wages earned. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 35, 85-92.
  • Friedman, C. (2019). Ableism, Racism, and Subminimum Wage in the United States. Disability Studies Quarterly, 39(4).
  • National Disability Rights Network. (2011). Segregated and exploited: The failure of the disability system to provide quality work. Washington, D.C.: National Disability Rights Network.
  • Rogan, P., & Rinne, S. (2011). National call for organizational change from sheltered to integrated employment. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 49(4), 248-260.
  • United Nations. (1948). Universal declaration of human rights (217 [III] A). Paris: Author.
  • Whittaker, W. G. (2005). Treatment of workers with disabilities under section 14 (c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (RL30674). Retrieved from

This article is a summary of the following journal manuscript: Friedman, C. (2019). Ableism, racism, and subminimum wage in the United States. Disability Studies Quarterly, 39(4).