Paid by the Penny: When Disabled Workers’ Rights are Compromised


We must not forget the disabled when we talk about worker rights.

I was nine or ten the first time I asked my parents, “Am I old enough to get a job yet?”

I saw the smiles in their eyes as they replied, ”Be patient. The world isn’t ready for Hurricane Erin yet.”

They knew as well as I did that I’d created my own definition of ‘work’ at that point in my life. I wanted an opportunity to help others see that I wasn’t just some Korean doll that came with a set of wheels.

Ironically, that was around the same time I told my parents I wanted to become a writer.

Now that those words are ringing true, I’m starting to realize that I contribute to the estimated 15.8 percent of disabled workers nationwide. However, I did not realize that the majority of these workers are legally getting paid mere pennies per hour, far below standard minimum wage. Not only that, but I’ve inadvertently been clumped into that group—a group I never thought I’d be a part of.

I sat back and thought about my role in society after reading that article from NBC News. I tried to put myself in those workers’ shoes, and thought about what could happen if my chosen profession didn’t allow me to work at my own pace. Moreover, what if I had a family of my own and had to put food on the table?

I think that’s the real centerpiece of this issue. These people who are getting nickeled and dimed are workers by trade, but they may very well be the glue that holds a family together, too.

It begs the question: “What does this say about not only my rights as a disabled worker, but also the rights of the nearly 650 million disabled individuals worldwide who may be looking for a job?”

I think another question worth asking is, “What are the consequences of ignoring those rights?” Along those lines, there’s an issue of liability involved. What if a certain employee needs help getting around, or needs an extra hand actually doing their job? Do you, as the employer, step in and help them yourself or hire someone to stay with them until their shift is over?

These are questions that could potentially raise major issues down the road—not only for the employee, but also for you as an employer. They may require a bit more attention, but should be addressed the same way any concerns of any other employee should be addressed.

It then occurred to me that just because I don’t sit behind a desk in an office doesn’t mean I don’t have to “work.” It doesn’t make my job any less important than that of an able-bodied person’s. In fact, I think it does quite the opposite.

A growing number of workers in general are being exploited on a global scale— with the US being perhaps the hardest hit target. If you look back at the start of the recession in 2008, many had already fallen on hard times. The decreasing availability of jobs didn’t help the situation, and many found themselves caught in between a rock and a hard place: paying the bills or feeding one’s family.

It perhaps became the sole reason why people were going to work in the first place, or why they were so determined to find and keep a job. It became so routine that the passion for one’s trade was starting to diminish—and sadly, still is.

This is a major factor as to why hundreds of workers are being exploited, and a solution to the problem is becoming clear.

Numerous studies have hinted at the benefits of companies hiring those with disabilities. Productivity may not be at its highest level, but the passion is there—thus increasing the quality of a given product or service.

I can’t speak for every disabled person out there, but that passion is power. It shows that you have no exterior motive except for proving your worth to a potential employer—as well as to the world.

In doing so, I think it also shows you’re taking initiative to create a better life for yourself and those around you.

There’s no doubt that the landscape of today’s workforce has changed—and with more and more disabled individuals knocking on employers’ doors, the stakes have also been raised. There’s not only that initial ambition to prove yourself, but you have to be prepared to stare your competition in the face.

Nine times out of ten, you’re going against an able-bodied person who is applying for the same job. In addition, your competition—as well as the employer—has to be aware that there’s another disabled individual in line in front of and behind you. They’re going to come knocking with just as much fire and determination.

One thing’s for sure—if I were an employer, I’d have eyes in the back of my head. Workers come in different sizes and shapes. And so does the definition of productivity.

–Photo: formatc1/Flickr

About Erin Kelly

Erin M. Kelly is the Social Justice Editor at The Good Men Project. She is also a columnist and writer with Cerebral Palsy who wants to be recognized for her work rather than her disability. She’s a 2009 graduate of Penn State Altoona, where she majored in Letters, Arts and Sciences. During her senior year, she was hired as a columnist for The Altoona Mirror, the daily newspaper in Altoona, PA. Her column entitled, “The View From Here,” runs monthly and addresses in a light-hearted, humorous manner the challenges she faces daily. She is also the editor of "To Cope and to Prevail", memoir of Penn State Altoona professor Dr. Ilse-Rose Warg. Find Erin on Twitter @WriterWheels.


  1. Ronrays says:

    The author is 100% correct in her views but unfortunately we are living in a very unfriendly environment for workers here in the US. Workers of all stripes and colors are under assault by greedy corporations and indifferent government. Until there is at least a partial change in attitude on the part of employers with regard to living wages and fair labor practices the hope of fair treatment of the disabled is a pipe dream. We as a country need to get the message to those in charge that these practices are unfair and will no longer be tolerated.

    • Steve Steveson says:

      If only it were greedy corporations. I have found big corporations are much better to work for as someone with a disability. They often have processes and procedures in place to find out what you need, if anything, and want to minimize any problems your disability might cause and only want to know if you can do the job.

      Its the small time businesses, franchises and “mom and pop” stores that abuse disabled people. They are the ones that won’t do simple things like paint bathrooms in high contrast, move a team to a wheelchair accessible room or not insist that everyone must be able to answer the phone to customers, even the deaf accountant. Unfortunately these are the real barriers disability causes. I don’t think it is about lower productivity and meaningless things implying we will care more. It is simple things that make life difficult and pure discrimination where people see someone come in with a disability and immediately decide “no” without even asking how or if the disability will even affect the persons ability to do the job.


  1. […] especially considering it was just a few short months ago that thousands of them were getting paid mere pennies per hour (many still […]

  2. […] This is a comment by Steve Steveson on “Paid By The Penny: When Disabled Worker Rights Are Compromised“: […]

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