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Foot, Cane and Wheel in the Door: How the Job Market Works Against Disabled People

By Disability Rights Advocate and Writer Emily Brown • job hunting for people with disabilities, employment discrimination disability, disabled people finding a job, employment search for people with disabilities, job hunt for disabled people, ableist job descriptions, subminimum wage and disabled people, interviewing when disabled, job interviews for people with disabilities, interviewing people with disabilities, disability employment discrimination, inclusive hiring practices • October 12, 2023

A person’s first job after graduation signals the passage into adulthood. Some might imagine their picture on a badge and their own company laptop. Whatever the dream is, anyone’s first ‘adult’ job is truly a milestone experience. But many disabled people might not get that experience or if they do, it can look quite different. I graduated with honors from Hamline in May 2022 with two degrees in writing, ready to start my adult career, but couldn’t find work due to having cerebral palsy, but couldn’t find work due to having cerebral palsy, which causes a speech impediment that prevents me from answering phones.

Job descriptions needlessly eliminate qualified candidates

The uphill battle of job hunting as a disabled person starts before the application. Job descriptions often have ableist requirements. According to, “Must be able to stand for long periods of time. Must be able to lift 50 lbs. Must have a driver’s license. These and similar phrases common to job postings could be non-starters for an otherwise qualified, capable and large population of job seekers. While often legal, such statements can imply that people with physical disabilities need not apply.”

While ableism in the workplace is a problem, getting a foot in the door is an entirely separate battle. A disabled person might be perfectly qualified, but can’t physically do what amounts to a small part of the job, like lifting the occasional box or driving to a once-a-year event. By including these types of requirements, employers have essentially excluded many disabled people. When I was job hunting, I spent hours upon hours sifting through entry-level job postings to find a position that didn’t require phone skills.

Interview questions may cross a line

Sometimes, interviewers ask invasive and personal questions about a person’s disability. According to Voices of Disability on, “I was prepared to answer any question related to the position, but when the editor-in-chief asked me, ‘How does the winter weather affect you? Doesn’t it make you dry?’ while gesturing at my tracheostomy tube, I was taken aback. This wasn’t a field-reporting job, so I wasn’t going to be spending all that much time outdoors. Why would I be asked this?” But the American Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits questions like this during a job interview. According to, [The Act] restricts questions that can be asked about an applicant’s disability before a job offer is made, and it requires that employers make reasonable accommodation to the known physical or mental limitations of otherwise qualified individuals with disabilities, unless it results in undue hardship.” If a disabled person answers these types of questions, their answers could be used unfairly against them and result in not being hired.

While it’s important to advocate for yourself when you encounter unfair treatment, it adds even more stress to the already difficult process of a job search.

Disabled people are often paid subminimum wage

Ableist job descriptions and invasive interview questions are still better than some alternatives when disabled people are job searching. Some disabled people are forced into jobs that pay below the minimum wage, which is actually legal under the current law.

According to the US Department of Labor, “The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides for the employment of certain individuals at wage rates below the minimum wage…Also included are individuals whose earning or productive capacity is impaired by a physical or mental disability, including those related to age or injury, for the work to be performed.” The FLSA is framed as being altruistic because it creates less of a barrier for disabled people looking for work. As in, businesses will be more likely to hire disabled people who may work more slowly because they don’t have to pay them as much. However, this can actually result in the exploitation of disabled workers.

Even when jobs do pay minimum wage, the wages aren’t really enough to live on in today’s economy. According to, “The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. This rate applies to covered nonexempt workers. The minimum wage for employees who receive tips is $2.13 per hour. The amount of tips plus the $2.13 must reach at least $7.25 per hour. If not, your employer must pay to make up the difference.” Minimum wage is a bit higher in Minnesota. According to the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, “Minnesota's minimum-wage rates will be adjusted for inflation Jan. 1, 2024, to $10.85 an hour for large employers and $8.85 an hour for other state minimum wages.

Disabled workers face wage and talent exploitation

Subminimum wage has been used for decades to exploit disabled people. According to the World Institute of Disability, “Over the decades, subminimum wage has become a mainstay of employers who wish to exploit the severely disabled without offering a pathway toward meaningful work and the minimum wage. This practice usually occurs at retail businesses or in vocational rehabilitation centers and ‘sheltered workshops’, where disabled workers are paid based on productivity at a small fraction of a non-disabled worker’s rate.”

One of the most infamous examples was Goodwill’s treatment of their disabled workers. While the organization framed themselves as a resource to disabled people, some stores also exploited them as cheap labor. According to CNBC, “Labor Department records show that some Goodwill workers in Pennsylvania earned wages as low as 22, 38 and 41 cents per hour in 2011.” These incredibly low wages are truly shocking, and you can see how the FLSA has been used to trap disabled people into lower paying jobs, exploit their cheap labor and then not allow them to improve their circumstances.

Today, Goodwill appears to be moving away from using a special minimum wage certificate that allows them to pay disabled people subminimum wage. states, “As of October 1, 2023, only 8 of the 149 local Goodwills in the United States are reported on DOL’s list. Many of those organizations are in the process of transitioning away from using the certificate.” This is heartening news.

Job descriptions must be written in ways that don’t automatically exclude disabled people. Human resources staff and others who conduct interview should be trained to know that they can’t and shouldn’t ask such invasive questions during an interview. There also are many other interview strategies that can help businesses and organizations become more inclusive in their hiring practices. Here is a Fraser blog which includes information about alternative interview options, broadening the recruitment network and providing supports after hiring.

There should be more opportunities for disabled people to find well-paying and non-exploitative jobs so we can support ourselves. We deserve better than being lumped into one group, and then being forced to do jobs we have no interest in for wages we can’t even live off of. This is part of a larger issue about workers’ rights in this country, but it’s important to include disabled people in these conversations.

There is hope. More and more states are outlawing subminimum wages, including (possibly) Minnesota. According to Governing, “A bill introduced [March 2023 that] would abolish subminimum wages for people with disabilities by August 2025 [in Minnesota], while providing millions of dollars to assist centers in helping people find jobs in the mainstream workforce.” This battle is exhausting, but it is worth it. Because without laws like these, disabled people, like myself are forced to live a life that is unfulfilled — in the work we do and the wages we are allowed to earn — to build a better life for ourselves.