Is It Okay to Pay Autistic People Less?

Kristina Chew considers the implications of an article from Business Week about Square One, an innovative new company that plans to create jobs for autistic people testing software, then pay them less than neurotypical workers. 

From the original piece:

A lot of software testing is done overseas by workers in India. The case Hahn makes is that his software testers will work for $15 to $20 an hour—pay comparable to, or even lower than, that of software testers in India, but right here in the U.S. After all, he points out, people with autism don’t have a lot of alternatives—when they do find work, it’s usually bagging groceries or sweeping hospital floors at the minimum wage.

Hahn, in other words, is proposing outsourcing to the developmentally disabled rather than the developing world. Asked whether it might be exploitative to pay people with a disability less than those without one for doing the same work, he says he doesn’t see it that way. For one thing, he says, Indian software testers aren’t exactly sweatshop labor; they make about $25 an hour. And if paying less makes the company able to hire the developmentally disabled in the first place, he doesn’t see a problem with it.

“I haven’t had one parent of an autistic child come to me and say this isn’t going to work,” he says. “They say, ‘This is a way for my child to make more money than they would have made otherwise, and allow them to be more independent.’ They worry, what is my child going to do when I’m gone? And this is kind of a way out.”

From Kristina:

But Square One faces a looming civil rights issue that could undermine the company’s aims. $15 to $25 is of course more than the minimum wage but, however “ASD-friendly” an environment that Square One offers, proposing to pay autistic employees at such rates — as cheaper labor — suggests that the company views such individuals’ work, and even such individuals themselves, as worth less.