© 2016

Disability Servitude

From Peonage to Poverty

  • Authors

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-xxi
  2. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
    Pages 1-3
  3. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
    Pages 5-27
  4. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
    Pages 43-54
  5. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
    Pages 55-77
  6. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
    Pages 79-111
  7. Ruthie-Marie Beckwith
    Pages 149-154
  8. Back Matter
    Pages 155-184

About this book


Disability Servitude traces the history and legacy of institutional peonage. For over a century, public and private institutions across the country relied on the unpaid, forced labor of their residents and patients in order to operate. This book describes the work they performed, in some cases for ten or more hours a day, seven days a week, and the lawsuits they brought in an effort to get paid. The impact of those lawsuits included accelerated de-institutionalization, but they fell short of obtaining equal and fair compensation for their plaintiffs. Instead, thousands of resident and patient-workers were replaced by non-disabled employees. Disability Servitude includes a detailed history of longstanding problems with the oversight of the sub-minimum wage provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act oversight. Beckwith shows how that history has resulted in the continued segregation and exploitation of over 400,000 workers with disabilities in sheltered workshops that legally pay far less than minimum wage.


clinical psychology criminology development economy human rights Institution law poverty psychology Segregation social science social structure society sociology work

About the authors

Ruthie-Marie Beckwith is Adjunct Associate Professor in the Disability Studies Program at City University of New York, USA.

Bibliographic information


“Disability Servitude tells the history of the end of peonage in American institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. … a welcome addition to the field of disability studies, treading the line between advocacy and balanced critique with great skill. … strength of this volume is that it takes a hitherto underexplored area of disability policy and shows how central it is to our understanding of the place of disabled people in contemporary American history. In this sense, it is invaluable.” (Gareth Millward, H-Net Disability,, May, 2017)

“This book is to provide a historical review of how a system of legally imposed economic impoverishment has been, and remains, a cornerstone of our social practice of segregation and seclusion for this segment of our population. … Beckwith presents a persuasive argument that an understanding of the history of unpaid, or barely paid, labor of people with intellectual disability is essential if we are to ever successfully support their integration into our communities as productive and valued citizens.” (Philip M. Ferguson, Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, Vol. 41 (4), 2016)