Echoes of Atalissa: Federal agency sues bunkhouse owner for exploiting mentally disabled workers

crumbsIn September 2016, the EEOC sued Byrd’s company, Work Services Inc., alleging it had forced its intellectually disabled workers to live in a crowded, substandard bunkhouse, paid them “unconscionable wages” that were less than what nondisabled workers were paid, and subjected the men to a hostile work environment in which they were called “stupid,” “retarded” and “dumb.”

Over the past year I have slowly been making my way through Dan Barry’s The Boys in the Bunkhouse.

The author tell some of the history of the rise and fall of  State Institutions in Texas and how the financial and physical exploitation of so many intellectually disabled adults became not only easy but desirable for companies, the specifics of which surrounded Henry’s Turkey Service and the men that were kept in servitude in the small town of Atalissa. This book  also provides an education about the practice of paying sub-minimum wage to workers with disabilities.

Advocates for sub-minimum wages and “sheltered”  work settings have proposed that the elimination of such programming would result in people with significant disabilities being left at home or shunted into day habilitation programs without the dignity of work, or even a token paycheck to call their own; however, the stories of how these policies impacted and devastated the lives of real human beings in The Boys in the Bunkhouse brings into sharp focus the ugliness and potential for exploitation that can lurk beneath even well-intentioned efforts to maintain a segregated workforce.

Although repetitive piecemeal work may be an appropriate and needful job for some, for others it is unreasonable that they compete with non-disabled workers in that setting. This doesn’t make those with significant disabilities the pigeons we throw our crumbs to. Believing that all people have capacities and that they have the right to  pursue their own interests and passions is foundational to moving the conversation beyond who belongs in the community  to how we are going to help them get there.

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