Cornell University Press

Investigating the Disability Industrial Complex

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Author: Doug Crandell

As human beings, we tend to use templates to make sense of complex issues. Large, impenetrable systems have many elements in common, especially when those systems deal with human services, billions of dollars, and oversight. As an example of this, in Twenty-Two Cents an Hour I use the term Disability Industrial Complex (DIC). While used in this book, it was Kathie Snow who was one of the first people to write about it.

An industrial complex is a critical term used to describe the powerful systems that shape public understanding, spending, legislation, and expectations. There are various forms of this phenomenon, certainly not limited to the lens of disability and economic justice. Other examples include: the Military Industrial Complex (i.e., MIC), the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC),the Healthcare Industrial Complex (HIC), and more recently, according to researchers Broderick & Roscigno, the Autism Industrial Complex (AIC).

The model of the DIC and effects on people with disabilities

As a pejorative phrase, the Disability Industrial Complex often provides more barriers than solutions. Bureaucracies are insular, and they tend to favor actions that protect the system. In recent years, we’ve seen much more interest in breaking through these systems and looking at the core customer, but so much more needs to be done. In fact, once a system has decided not to continue existing as an industrial complex, the real work begins. The DIC, as it relates to subminimum wages, has been harmful, spending millions in lobbying dollars to protect the practice.

Lessons for readers

The Disability Industrial Complex is deeply rooted in our uniquely American form of disability supports and policy. Instead of the social model, as is used and promoted in the UK, the United States focuses on a medical model, which views the person as needing to be fixed, rather than a citizen who needs supports to live, work, and participate fully in community life. Add to that medical model an entrenched capitalistic approach to disability, and you get trade groups and lobbyists who control policy, rather than people with disabilities. I hope readers question our American approach, the DIC and its insidious faux benevolence, and the role regular community members can play in shaping policy. The practice of subminimum wages is a symptom of an industrial complex that is harmful, but we can make positive change by getting involved.

Looking ahead and next steps

The two bills in Congress that can phase out subminimum wages are still being crafted, with new co-sponsors every month from across the country, but it’s not enough. In 2011, and again in 2014, bills were passed that postponed and delayed the abolition of subminimum wages. If it is indeed different in 2022, here are some tips to take further action:

Learn more about Twenty-Two Cents an Hour

Editor Note: Author has used person-first language in this blog, but also supports those who would rather be identified by their disability first.


Doug Crandell is Public Service Faculty at the Institute on Human Development and Disability at the University of Georgia and the author of several books and novels, most recently They’re Calling You Home.

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