October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month. In light of this occasion, I’m calling on Iowa state Rep. Ashley Hinson to apologize for the deeply hurtful comments she made during a recent congressional debate and the ableist rhetoric she has continued to promote as part of her campaign.
For more than five years, my son Kyle worked a job in Dubuque making approximately $3.50 an hour —— $3.75 an hour below the federal minimum wage.
He wasn’t paid less because of his work habits. Kyle woke up early, commuted to his workplace on public transportation and put in a hard full days work before coming home. And despite working for subminimum wage, he did his job well and always had a smile on his face.
No, Kyle was legally paid a subminimum wage because he has a disability. The same is true for nearly 250,000 other Americans.
As a father, I was proud to see Kyle engaging with and contributing to his community. Unfortunately, his paychecks did not reflect his commitment to employment. I was reminded of this unfair practice earlier this month when Hinson defended the subminimum wage as she campaigned to be elected to Congress.
While trying to defend her own record of failing to support a minimum-wage increase, Hinson went out of her way to rationalize paying people with disabilities less, arguing that employers hire people with disabilities because of the very fact that they can pay them less — all but declaring that my son’s labor is worth less compared to that of his non disabled peers.
As the father of a 30-year-old young man with Down syndrome, I’m utterly appalled that a state representative is using her platform as a candidate for Congress to defend the exploitation of our disabled workforce. My son has faced many obstacles in his life; the last thing he should have to do is educate the very person who is supposed to represent his interests on the moral wrongness of an archaic labor practice that pushes disabled folks further into poverty.
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Unlike Hinson, I know the realities of our exclusionary economic system firsthand. Kyle worked in a mostly segregated environment, known as a sheltered workshop, that employs people with disabilities separate from able-bodied people. The hours he spent at work had him mostly shut off from the outside world, which provided little opportunity for job training that would help him integrate into competitive employment. I became fearful that keeping Kyle employed at a sheltered workshop would act as a bridge to nowhere, as it does for so many disabled Americans.
It wasn’t until I served on the Iowa Developmental Disabilities Council, that I found out Kyle had other options, like employment in an integrated setting. After attending multiple conferences, webinars, and doing research to learn more about Competitive Integrated Employment, Kyle was offered a job from a family friend. With the help of his job coach, supervisor, and co-workers, Kyle has become a productive employee and valued member of the team at a national pizza chain.
His success at work has inspired both of us to become involved in groups that champion for disabled folks, leading Kyle to national recognition for his advocacy work.
But even with Kyle earning minimum wage, Hinson and her party are actively working to undermine the Medicaid system that provides the job coaching allowing him to thrive in competitive integrated employment.
Hinson is part of the Republican legislative majority that has gutted Medicaid in Iowa and has remained silent on the Republican-backed lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which protects families like mine. Her actions, like her rhetoric, speak volumes about her lack of commitment to supporting all of her constituents.
It’s been disheartening watching Kyle and other hardworking folks with disabilities get left behind over the years. I refuse to let Hinson’s harmful comments go without a response.
Kyle deserves a decent shot at life, competitive and integrated employment, and, at the bare minimum, health care coverage. If Hinson is truly running to represent Iowans, as she claims, she’ll apologize for her disrespectful comments and commit to policies that work for all Iowans, not just those without disabilities. And if she’s not interested in apologizing, she shouldn’t be running.
Bill Stumpf lives in Dubuque.