Disabled Women’s Equal Pay Struggles Often Go Unheard — But You Can Help Include Them

Tuesday marks Equal Pay Day in the United States — but something is still missing from the conversation. Yes, it's crucial that we highlight the too-many inequalities that face women. But it's just as important to ensure that these conversations reflect the experiences of all women, including women with disabilities.

Women with disabilities face a striking wage gap, too. The median pay for women with disabilities is 72 cents for every dollar earned by men with disabilities. And in 2016, an American Association of University Women report found that people with disabilities made only 68 cents for every dollar non-disabled people earned.

Of course, it's not just disabled women who suffer the effects of the wage gap. Last year, women on average were paid just 80.5 cents for every dollar men made, an alarming disparity of nearly 20 cents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But women who are also members of other marginalized communities, like women of color and LGBTQ women, face a more significant wage gap.

Providing equal pay to women would cut the poverty rate for women in half.

Why? There are a few reasons. Shockingly, some people with disabilities earn as little as 22 cents an hour — and it's completely legal. Passed 80 years ago, Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act allows employers to pay people with disabilities a sub-minimum wage simply by obtaining a certificate from the U.S. Department of Labor. People with disabilities receiving less than minimum wage often work in “sheltered workshops."

Ostensibly, the goal of these programs is to prepare people with disabilities for integrated employment where they will earn a typical wage. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case.

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In addition, both women and men with disabilities continue to struggle to find work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2016, only 18 percent of people with disabilities were employed, compared with 65 percent of people without disabilities. And women of color with disabilities experience even higher rates of unemployment.

Poverty is even more prevalent in the disability community. Nearly 27 percent of people with disabilities live below the federal poverty level, reports the U.S. Census Bureau. Notably, providing equal pay to women would cut the poverty rate for women in half, says the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Why does all of this this matter so much on Equal Pay Day? Because women have higher rates of disability. One in four women in the United States have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), outnumbering men. And, according to the United Nations: “Girls and women of all ages with any form of disability are generally among the more vulnerable and marginalized of society."

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Therefore, recognizing and eliminating the employment inequalities faced by people with disabilities, especially by disabled women, has significant implications for eliminating the gender wage gap. There are things that can be done to address the gender wage gap for all women — but these efforts must include women with disabilities.

Equal Pay Day efforts must be inclusive of disabled women.

First, it is imperative that laws protecting employees with disabilities be enforced. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has already rolled back protections for people with disabilities. In December, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) eliminated Obama-era policies that required states to reduce sheltered workshops and promote meaningful, integrated employment opportunities for people with disabilities. And the DOJ, the federal agency responsible for enforcing the ADA and other civil rights laws, has cut back on the number of civil rights cases it's pursuing, according to VICE.

Second: Employers have a significant role in increasing employment among people with disabilities and eliminating gender wage gaps. Workplace efforts to increase diversity rarely include people with disabilities. Further, stereotypes about the capabilities of people with disabilities often lead to discrimination by employers. Employers must reduce these barriers and recognize the potential of people with disabilities.

Finally, and most importantly, Equal Pay Day efforts must be inclusive of disabled women. For far too long, conversations concerning women’s rights, such as the #MeToo movement, have excluded women with disabilities. Even the Women’s March was slow to include disability rights as one of its issues—and only did so after significant advocacy by disabled women.

Disability rights are women’s rights. It's time we recognized that.