WASHINGTON — People with disabilities are still being excluded from gainful employment and are still often being paid below the minimum wage, lawmakers were told during a hearing on Thursday conducted by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.  

“It is time we stop thinking about how we can work and who can not work and instead start thinking about what we can all do to help all people with a desire to work and get employment,” said Lauren Avellone, an associate professor at the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center at Virginia Commonwealth University “many of whom want to work and contribute significantly to our workforce.” 

Avellone noted in her written testimony that while 40.5% of individuals with disabilities were employed in January of 2024, it was “ alarmingly low” when compared to the 77.3% of people employed without disabilities. She recommended a number of changes, including eliminating so-called 14c certificates that allows companies to pay workers with disabilities less than the minimum wage.

Senators also heard horror stories from people with disabilities. Erin Willman described how she faced hardships when looking for work after losing her vision at age 15.

“Time and time again, I faced rejection, due to the fact people could see all the things I could not do instead of the things I could do,” she said. 

After going to a local Office of Rehabilitation, she was told she was never going to find competitive employment. 

“This made me question my worth,” she said. 

But with the help of her family members, she became the founder and CEO of Coffee Cane Company, which now hires people with disabilities so that they can have the same opportunities as others.  

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said he is trying to pass a new law to help encourage companies to hire people with disabilities to work alongside those without disabilities. 

“People with all kinds of disabilities can work in a competitive integrated employment environment. It is shameful that people with disabilities are still being paid subminimum wages,” he said. “Thankfully, phasing out this discriminatory wage is a bipartisan priority.”

The proposed measure, called the Disability Employment Incentive Act, would expand three existing tax benefits to businesses that successfully hire and retain people with disabilities, Casey said.

According to Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), there are currently over 1.8 million business owners with disabilities in the U.S. 

“We must continue to support these entrepreneurial individuals so that they can expand and support their own businesses,”  he said.