The Americans with Disabilities Act: Failure at Its Supposed Public Policy Purpose


Economist Scott Sumner takes a look at the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act in its own terms and finds it wanting.

I noticed this in a paper by David H. Autor and Mark Duggan:

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) forcefully articulates this contemporary view of disability: "Physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society… The Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals."

Later they report the effects of the legislation:

As documented in Figures 6a and 6b, the employment rate of males in their forties and fifties with a self-reported disability fell from 28 percent in 1988 to 16 percent in 2008 (approximately a 40 percent decline). The employment rate of comparably aged males without a disability held roughly constant at 87 to 88 percent. For females in this same age range with disabilities, the employment rate declined slightly (from 18 to 15 percent) while the employment rate of their counterparts without a disability rose from 66 to 76 percent.

It's difficult to think of a piece of legislation that failed more abysmally than the ADA. So now what to we do? Will the supporters of the ADA concede that it failed and call for repeal? Not likely. A cynic might claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act is not about getting disabled people into the workforce, it's about creating jobs for lawyers.

I'm guessing ADA defenders, with the employment aspect denied them to cheer about, would point instead to victories in easier public accomodations and movement for the small percentage of the disabled whose disabilities include depending on wheeled transportation for mobility or being sightless and deaf, but Sumner has a point.

On its 20th anniversary, I blogged about ADA's questionable successes. Further reporting about its use as a lawsuit abuse machine in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, a 2002 check-in on dubious legal precedents litigants attempted to set via ADA, and my big 1995 Reason cover feature about the ADA when it was fresh and new.

NEXT: Man Jailed for Soap Sues Pennsylvania Troopers

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. As documented in Figures 6a and 6b, the employment rate of males in their forties and fifties with a self-reported disability fell from 28 percent in 1988 to 16 percent in 2008 (approximately a 40 percent decline).

    I wonder how much of this had to do with increases in the level and accessibility of disability benefits?

    I’m sure some of it had to do with “Hard to fire, hard to hire”, but I wonder about the welfare angle as well.

    1. I came here to ask what you asked.

      As an employer who’s lived with this since it was implemented, it’s sure not the case that we’ve seen a lot of requests for accommodation. However, the FEAR of requests for accommodation, and the odd retard with a a lawyer….yep, seen it. But so rare as to “hardly even be a consideration”. We’ve hired literally thousands of people since this law passed. I can count on one hand the number of accommodations I’ve ever had to get involved with.

      I think it’s the ease in getting disability now that’s reduced employment (%) for disabled men. Definitely not this law in my experience.

      Of course, that’s an n of “a few” – I may be wrong.

    2. What makes the drop especially bad is that work in general has become more handicap friendly. The increased use of computers, the internet, telecommuting, PLUS the ADA accommodations – the employment figures for disabled men of working age should be at all time highs.

  2. As usual with large pieces of legislation, the incentives baked in are incredibly perverse. Remember that not only are many people quite bad at understanding what the actual incentives are going to be for any given thing, politicians are especially bad, because they’re not writing legislation for any other reason than self-aggrandizement, cronyism, lobbying, or their own particular obsession.

    Law: the gift that keeps giving. To lawyers.

  3. FMLA, on the other hand.

    What an abject, cluster fuck DISASTER. I remember hearing some retard congressfuck chearing it at some anniversary – “oh, look, it’s so wonderful, and hardly cost employers anything!”

    What a dumbass. FMLA has cost us tens of THOUSANDS of fucking dollars, and made a bunch of employees into pieces of shit that we work very, very hard to fire (legally).

    Fuck that law.

    ADA – meh. FMLA – hell on earth (USA employer edition)

  4. Tell the childless employees to greet the others every day with a “You’re welcome”.

    1. Airbnb tried that approach and were roundly condemned for it. Progressives are happy to take your money but shut the hell up about it. Quite the ex-wife mentality.

  5. One of the things that’s less public, but that was a big topic of debate when ADA was passed, is the construction costs. ADA compliance is actually a significant line item in any public agency’s facilities budget.

    Innocent John Q. Public thinks ADA is just a set of rules for making a building accessible to the disabled. What John Q. Public doesn’t always know is that the rules get revised literally every 3-5 years.

    Grandfathering is not a thing with ADA. Every few years, you go out of compliance and are subject to lawsuits.

    One thing that happened in CA, for example, is that the ADA spec for publically accessible toiles went from saying that the toilet bowl must 18″ +/- from the wall surface to 18″, period. For whatever reason, they felt that the sometimes-as-much-as-an-inch-or-more variance was too much discretion to grant local building inspectors.

    I cannot tell you how many millions have been spent in CA relocating toilets 1/2″ to bring them in compliance. You would think I am exaggerating, but I am not – not at all.

    1. And then there’s the truncated domes – you know the rubberized yellow pads with the raised bumps that are on all the curb cuts now?

      Those are supposed to help blind people be aware that they are entering a path of traffic. We’ve spent millions tearing out every street corner in the state to install those.

      Turns out, they make it hard for people in wheelchairs to get up the curb cuts, and they break your eggs when you roll your shopping cart out of the store over them.

      So the next update of the building code is going to ban them, and we’re going to tear them all out (I heard this from an CA state inspector – not 100% sure whether that’s true, but it seems perfectly believable).

      1. And the sky cars at Disneyland that went through the Matterhorn? There are a lot of urban legends about why those got taken out.

        The real reason?

        Could not make the stations ADA-compliant, so they had to go.

        A lot of people think you don’t see swings at schools and parks because of safety paranoia.

        Not so – it’s ADA. It is almost impossible to keep the surface under a swing set ADA compliant with high-velocity children kicking it hundreds of times a day. So, no more swings.

        This law causes so much damage and destruction in our society it is absurd.

        And its benefits to the disabled are highly questionable.

        1. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t like this law.

          1. But so many construction jobs! STIMULUS!
            See, what they should be doing is hiring a full time dirt replacer to put the dirt back under the swings. They’re doing it wrong.

            1. “See, what they should be doing is hiring a full time dirt replacer to put the dirt back under the swings.”

              You may be joking, but they seriously do this. This is the current recommendation for ensuring compliance.

              And I think there is a stimulus angle – J. Brown never met a public construction need he didn’t drool over.

              I don’t know how it works nationally, but you can take the bottom-line construction cost of any CA public project and figure that 15-20% is going straight to the unions. ADA helps make sure that even the most minor rehabilitations need a full permit and public bid process.

            2. Krugman was wrong about starting another world war the benefits of an alien invasion: we can just give the ADA more teeth and let them loose on the productive economy. Soon we’ll have full employment/

              1. Good deal of redundancy in the first sentence. All you have to say is Krugman, we already know he’s wrong.

      2. The blind hated them too. The domes were a new trip hazard that had previously never existed in their life.

    2. There is definitely some grandfathering – otherwise 300+ stations in the NYC subway system are out of compliance (to take one example). Unless FedGov feels like tossing us a few trillion dollars to fix it now.

      1. To clarify my admittedly spittle-flecked rant, you are still subject to complaint and a fine if you are out of compliance, even if you were in compliance before, but *if* you were in compliance before you have an opportunity to repair prior to being fined.

        The CA legislature tried to get rid of this recently (i.e. the ability to fix before you are fined), but they failed.

        NY may have less aggressive enforcement than CA (the CA DOJ is downright aggressive about it), but I guarantee that if any remodeling of any of those subway stations is ever to happen, they will be remodeling their restrooms. You *always* have to re-do the restrooms.

        1. And you speak of funding – this is a big reason why a lot of public buildings in CA are left to decay. They need to remodel, but you can’t pull a permit without bringing everything you are touching into ADA compliance, which is often cost-prohibitive, so they prefer to just take the risk and pay any fines that may come.

        2. I have seen exactly one public restroom over 20 years. In fact they made a huge deal out of opening it – posting a guard and such. All the rest were closed decades ago.

          1. What had you done to close all the public restrooms?

    3. In Pima County Arizona the ADA has crept into private residences. With new, additions or remodels the court withholds a permit until you demonstrate compliance with their limited accessibility rules. There is a significant cost associated with this. The reason, because one day a disabled person may wish to purchase the home.

      1. Not court, county.

      2. That is… truly insane.

        1. It’s unfair that normal people don’t also have to shoulder the burden.

    4. Last century, I worked at a radio station at a public university. To comply with ADA, they either had to install an elevator in a century old building not designed for an elevator or move the station. They moved the station, but it cost more than $350k to do the move plus whatever it cost the previous tenant of the new location to move to a different space. Great use of tuition money.

  6. Don’t worry. When the min wage is raised to $15 per hour, that will be a big help for the disabled.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.