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25 Years of the Americans with Disabilities Act


This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA requires that businesses provide "reasonable accommodation" to disabled employees. Most people generally point to mandates for wheelchair ramps into businesses, or elevators to the second floor. But as with most federal regulations, the ADA goes much, much further than that. James Bovard, writing on the original legislation's anniversary, explains:

The 1990 ADA defined disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities” — a far broader definition that what previously prevailed in the statute book. In 2008, Congress vastly expanded that definition to include people with diabetes, depression, heart disease, or cancer, as well as people who have significant troubles standing, lifting, bending, reading, concentrating, thinking and communicating.

The ADA is known as “attorney’s dreams answered” because it, and similar state laws modeled on  the law, have spurred hundreds of thousands of lawsuits, often for violations of arcane architectural standards. As early as 1995, one federal judge denounced an ADA case as "a blatant attempt to extort additional money" — something for which the law is now notorious. A California P.F. Chang's restaurant was reportedly sued because the coat hook on the inside door of an accessible toilet stall was at an improper height. One convicted child molester in California has filed hundreds of cases. The New York Times reported in 2012 that the ADA had unleashed a “flood of lawsuits” against New York City delis, bagel shops, flower shops and other businesses that many people considered nothing more than “ambulance-chasing.”

President Obama declared last week that “thanks to the ADA, the places that comprise our shared American life — schools, workplaces, movie theaters, courthouses, buses, baseball stadiums, national parks — they truly belong to everyone.” But workplaces do not “belong to everyone” — they are mostly privately owned. Even so, the feds have often used the ADA to commandeer them.  For instance, the Justice Department dictated exactly how miniature golf courses must be configured and slanted for the ease of wheelchair users.

Many ADA decrees defy common sense. The Los Angeles Disabled Access Appeals Commission invoked the ADA to force the Odd Ball Cabaret, a strip joint, to close a shower stall on its stage.  The commission ruled that because the stall would not be accessible to a stripper in a wheelchair, the business discriminated against disabled women. It didn’t matter that there were no wheelchair-bound strippers.

In other words, private property is not really private property. It exists to help federal regulators and lawmakers achieve their own public policy goals.

And what has the outcome been? Well, it has led to significant decline in employment for disabled people. Lew Rockwell wrote in 2005:

Consider that employment among disabled people had reached a high in 1989, after years of economic expansion, rising in compassion for the disabled, and advances in technology that permitted their more thorough integration into the workforce. Then something awful happened: the government granted the disabled special rights (the ADA) and thereby made them more expensive and dangerously litigious to hire. What followed was a human rights disaster: the longest slide in disabled employment ever recorded, according to five different measures used to record unemployment among the disabled.

Naturally, any employer looking to avoid lawsuits — after the passage of ADA — would increasingly be wary about hiring anyone who is now disabled or who might later claim to be disabled. After all, it becomes exceptionally difficult to fire someone who invokes the "disability" trump card, and this would also make employers less likely to hire anyone who is overweight, old, slow, or possessing strange idiosyncrasies. You never know how any of these things might be defined as a "disability" and will be used to sue you out of existence down the road. The job market for the disabled has predictably suffered.

For more, see:

The ADA Racket by Robert Blumen

Lawyers Cash In on ADA ATM by Doug French


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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