Disability Servitude: From Peonage to Poverty

By Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
Review by Marcia Tewell

The Council has recently added this book to our library – a lending library, so please let us know if you are interested in borrowing the book. Disability Servitude has many amazing insights that only come to be realized once the historical context is in place and patterns of inequity and poverty can be seen over long stretches of time. The concept of volunteerism and individuals with disabilities, once the book’s concepts are realized, is clearly yet another mask under which to get free or very inexpensive labor, under the auspices of treatment, pre-vocational training, or using the readiness model to support profitable business practices.

Many of us know the concept of peonage as applied to prisons and early institutional life in the U.S. As institutions became primarily custodial and also increased in size to become warehouses with the purpose of keeping those who would be a menace to society and a drain on resources, the question of how to pay for the incarceration of large numbers occurred. Institutions for folks with disabilities then began to borrow the practice from the penal system and used inmate labor to build and maintain the institutions. This shift was a parallel justification of the directors of such to bring the idea of ‘treatment’ into the formula. There was, at the time, no question that paying an inmate for their very own treatment was in appropriate. Uncompensated labor became a common practice in institutional life and is clearly carried out today in smaller community settings, still as a form of training for future jobs – be they in thrift retail, assembly line work putting widgets together, fish hook assembly, shrink wrap projects for hospitals, recycling of all sorts, shredding of all sorts, and/or the usual cleaning crews/enclaves. The list is sadly endless.

Despite such great leaders in the field who demonstrated the capabilities for employment, such as Mark Gold, the dream of real work for real pay in real places with real co-workers has not been realized. There is instance after instance in which individuals have exceeded expectations and worked alongside others doing the same job. This revealed capacity has not come to fruition for the great majority of people with disabilities, particularly those with intellectual disabilities. There have been some actions in terms of policy that have greatly hindered the efforts of pure competitive employment, not to mention customized or supported employment. Slowly and very subtly, the system has made small inroads in changes to get folks not only earning minimum wage, but to peel away the multiple layers of bad policy supporting the indentured poverty status.

Beckwith reports on the many court cases that supported the concept of reparations to people who had worked for nothing for decades, but with little outcome. Sub-minimum wages continued with sanction from all fields. Even if a lawsuit deemed it necessary to pay minimum wage to individuals working in segregated settings such as institutions, the business side of the ‘human service’ reigned and the people were simply fired and got no wages as a result. The favorite quote of this advocate is, “You build a better maze, and you get a smarter rat.” This phenomenon seems to pertain to the fiscal side of policy changes most frequently. The book has a multitude of examples of how the non-profit service system has avoided not going out of ‘business’ due to having absolutely free labor, and now, to bill Medicaid and contract with/bill private business as well.

Ms. Beckwith’s final chapter concludes that there are immense challenges to overcoming the segregated ‘training’ models of ‘treatment’ that are historical vestiges of institutional life. Beckwith cites data indicating 425,000 individuals in the U.S. who are employed by agencies that use the Fair Labor and Standards Act waiver certificates to keep people earning as little as $1.00 for a two week pay period – the piece work method of calculating salary. Sadly, though we may think that we have deinstitutionalized our society, in reality, we have only trans-institutionalized. We maintain very old practices with a lack of consciousness about from where these practices came. We can put a 2016 mask on and look at retail as good business, cheap labor for the stores/agencies, providing something better to do than sit at home with TV, providing socialization, and allowing parents/providers to have time work or have respite themselves. Or we can take the mask off and realize that running businesses off of ‘employees’ in need of community service hours, individuals with disabilities who need pre-vocational training, or welfare recipients who need hours to maintain their benefits, is simply a modern form of peonage and should be rectified to take us into the future with real lives being the outcome of the efforts.

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