Randy Phifer used to work with architectural firms designing houses for a living — but everything changed when he lost his sight five years ago.
“Diabetes took my sight,” he said. “It started with driving and working in December of ’05 and I was totally blind in June of ’06.”
Today, he was one of about 20 people chanting “Equal work, equal pay!” on a hot sidewalk in front of a Wichita Senate office, protesting in what he believes to be one of the last frontiers of the civil rights movement — equality for people with disabilities.
The demonstrators, organized by the National Federation of the Blind, are opposed to a provision in a bill under consideration in the Senate that they say would make it easier to pay employees with disabilities less than minimum wage.
“If there’s a minimum wage, there should be a minimum wage for everyone,” said Phifer, who traveled from his home in Overland Park for the demonstration. “It shouldn’t even be a question.”
Not far away Wichita State University student Emily Schlenker waved a sign reading “Do you support equality or exploitation?”
Schlenker, who can sense light and darkness but can’t see shapes, is working toward a master’s degree that she hopes will lead to a career in facilitating health services for underserved populations.
“I’m going to be college educated and I don’t feel that my being blind should make any difference as to what I’m being paid or whether or not I’m employed,” she said.
Although the demonstration took place outside the Wichita office of Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, relations between the picketers and the senator’s staff were cordial and organizers emphasized that Roberts was not the target.
The group was the local part of a national demonstration that put pickets at the door of every member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is scheduled to consider the Workforce Investment Act early next month.
Several of the demonstrators were invited into Roberts’ office, where they met with Mel Thompson, the senator’s agricultural representative.
The demonstrators told Thompson of their displeasure with a provision in legislation to reauthorize the Federal Workforce Investment Act.
They said the new legislation would solidify and expand the opportunity for employers to pay disabled workers less, which they say is nothing but discrimination.
The federation for the blind also contends the bill would also encourage rehabilitation case agents to take the easy route of steering clients with disabilities toward sub-minimum-wage jobs in sheltered workshops, where people are generally paid by the piece for products they produce.
The wages often come out to less than the federal and state mandated minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
The demonstrators are hoping to convince Roberts to offer an amendment to remove the language the don’t like from the bill.
They thanked Thompson for hearing them out. And he gave them some free tickets to the Get Motivated seminar held Tuesday at the Intrust Bank Arena.
“We admire you, and we thank you, and we commend you, and want to work with you,” he told the demonstrators.
The senator has not made a decision on the bill yet, but has been in contact with groups representing disabled people on both sides, said his press secretary, Andrea Candrian.
The provision at issue is supported by organizations such as Easter Seals, Goodwill Industries and others who operate sheltered workshops, she said.
Phifer had to change careers when his blindness rendered him unable to design houses. He now sells water filtration systems and works as a motivational speaker.
“When you talk to me on a phone, you don’t believe I’m blind,” he said.
A former baseball player, Phifer said he thinks of blindness as another sport to master.
“In this particular sport, you have to carry a cane — and you can’t peek,” he said.