The Depoliticization of Disability: Professions and Politics in the 1986 Entrenchment of the Subminimum Wage

Emily Ruppel, University of California, Berkeley

In the United States, the payment of subminimum wages to disabled workers has been legal since 1938 and was entrenched by 1986 legislation eliminating the previously mandated wage floor of 50% of the minimum wage. This paper analyzes historical records from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s to explain the 1986 removal of the wage floor. I argue that the deinstitutionalization movement served as an exogenous shock to the system of professions addressing disability, and that in the wake of this shock, the managers of segregated workshops for disabled manual laborers rose to control employment policy due to their high level of organization and ties to the state and private industry, their coordinated attack on social movement organizations opposing the subminimum wage, and the overall weakness of the labor movement during the Reagan years. These professionals drew upon social, material, and cultural resources to frame the subminimum wage as an apolitical matter subject to their technical expertise and mobilize Congress in favor of its entrenchment. This research investigates state practices of ceding decision-making power to experts, illuminating pathways behind the institutionalization of new regimes.

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 Presented in Session 192. Disability and Risk in the Workplace