Disabled Politics


The politics of niceness is the most dangerous politics of all, because it is the most dishonest. When no one will speak bluntly or raise uncomfortable issues, for fear of being thought tactless or mean, all manner of folly can be adopted as law.

In George Bush's kinder, gentler Washington, the politics of niceness rules. We hear no more of Reaganesque gaffes. (A gaffe, as Michael Kinsley has noted, occurs when someone accidentally tells the truth.) And we get bills like the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The ADA is the nicest bill to come along in a long time. It is even nicer than all those child-care bills. There are 43 million Americans with disabilities, say ADA's supporters. Only the scum of the earth would oppose protecting them from discrimination. It wouldn't be nice.

"No politician can vote against this bill and survive," said one of its opponents, Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Nancy Fulco. The bill zipped through the Senate on a 76-8 vote and looks to do as well in the House. Bush loves it. It's kind, it's gentle, and, besides, his son Neil has dyslexia.

Dyslexia isn't what comes to mind when most people consider hiring the handicapped. But it is exactly the sort of disability the bill is designed to cover. After all, if you limited disabled to, say, the blind, the deaf, the wheelchair-bound, and others with major physical impairments, you'd never get to the official tally of 43 million—more than one in six Americans. (By way of comparison, there are about 30 million black people in the United States.) Interestingly, in the 1980 census only 22.5 million people identified themselves as disabled.

The ADA's drafters in specific and the disability lobby in general prefer expansive definitions. The bill bans discrimination in employment and public accommodation against anyone with "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more…major life activities." What exactly that definition means made for an interesting Senate debate. Consider the following exchange between Sen. Tom Harkin (D–Iowa) and Sen. Jesse Helms (R–N.C.):

"Helms: Does the list of disabilities include pedophiles?
Harkin: What?
Helms: P-e-d-o-p-h-i-l-e-s?
Harkin: I can assure the Senator no.
Helms: How about schizophrenics?
Harkin: Schizophrenics, yes.
Helms: Kleptomania?
Harkin: Well, I am not certain on that.
Helms: Manic depressives?
Harkin: Manic depressives, yes.…
Helms: People with intelligence levels, as measured on standardized tests such as the IQ test, which are so far below standard average levels as to limit substantially one or more major life activities, but who do not have any identifiable mental disease?
Harkin: It is my understanding that they would be covered in this bill."

Kleptomaniacs have since been kicked out by amendment, as have pedophiles, transvestites, homosexuals, bisexuals, exhibitionists, voyeurs, compulsive gamblers, pyromaniacs, and current substance abusers. Psychotics are still protected.

The ADA has been sold as a civil rights bill. How, you may ask yourself, have we gotten from Rosa Parks to psychotics? Somewhere along the way, we slid down a very slippery slope.

In the beginning, antidiscrimination laws banned bad—that is, immoral—taste. You couldn't decline to hire a more-qualified black simply because you didn't like blacks. To refuse to hire (or rent to or serve a hamburger to) someone, you had to give a good reason.

At first, the women's movement also attacked bad taste. But soon many feminists abandoned the old ideal of evaluating women as individuals, using the same standards applied to men. They argued instead for special accommodation. If most women soldiers couldn't do the chin-ups required of men, they said, the rules should be changed. If most women applicants couldn't lift the loads required of firefighters, the loads should be lightened. If many women wanted to take years off from work to raise kids, they should be guaranteed their old jobs back. The old tests of qualifications no longer constituted "good reasons."

The ADA extends the neofeminists' line of argument. With a vagueness that will enrich many a lawyer, it requires employers to make "reasonable accommodation" for disabled individuals. What exactly is reasonable will be up to the whim of the courts, but the senators seem willing to impose fairly expensive burdens, at least on larger companies.

For example, Harkin was asked whether the bill would require a company to hire a full-time reader to accommodate a blind employee. "If it is IBM, perhaps that is not a big deal," he replied. Even for IBM, however, getting one employee for the cost of two is indeed a big deal.

For the most part, however, the senators confined their questions to socially unacceptable "disabilities"—mostly of a sexual nature. They were too polite to ask, for instance, about dyslexics. Should they be typists? Answering-service operators? Proofreaders? And if not, why not? Might it not be "reasonable" to require companies to hire secretaries who can't spell? After all, their bosses could just proofread everything several times instead of just once—or the company could hire special proofreaders. How is that any more costly or inconvenient than having a reader follow a blind person around?

Then there are the mentally retarded. Many companies find they make excellent employees, particularly for repetitive tasks. But the ADA appears to prohibit any refusal to hire the mentally handicapped. And while truly intellectual jobs may require academic credentials (as distinct from qualifications), blue-collar jobs increasingly demand plenty of mental acuity. More and more companies depend on their factory workers to be able to interpret statistics, read charts, diagnose problems, and do a host of other challenging tasks that are beyond many a person of average intelligence, much less "people with intelligence levels…far below standard average levels." Are we to abandon the quest for efficient production and economic competitiveness altogether?

Unfortunately, tastes and qualifications are not as easily distinguished as the framers of the original civil rights statutes thought. To those who want to prohibit discrimination against the handicapped, it is simply a matter of bad will not to want to hire a reader for a blind employee.

They have a point. Economic decisions require tradeoffs, and how you make those tradeoffs ultimately depends on your tastes and values. To say that it costs too much to accommodate the disabled is to admit that you value their happiness or sense of self-worth less than you value something else—whether that something is raising salaries, devoting more money to R&D, or cutting prices. And that is exactly the kind of admission the politics of niceness won't allow.