Good Intentions Gone Bad

The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 was noble in intent, but disastrous in practice. A boon for frivolous lawsuits and little else, the ADA is a prime example of the futility that is legislating compassion.

You own a business, maybe a restaurant. You've got a lot to worry about. You have to make sure the food is safe and tastes good, that the place is clean and appealing, that workers are friendly and paid according to a hundred Labor Department and IRS rules.
On top of that, there are rules you might have no idea about. The bathroom sinks must be a specified height. So must the doorknobs and mirrors. You must have rails. And if these things aren't right — say, if your mirror is just one inch too high — you could be sued for thousands of dollars.
And be careful. If you fail to let a customer bring a large snake, which he calls his "service animal," into your restaurant, you could be in trouble.
All of this is because of the well-intentioned Americans With Disabilities Act, which President George H.W. Bush signed 20 years ago.
The ADA was popular with Republicans and Democrats. It passed both houses of Congress with overwhelming majorities, 377 to 28 in the House and 91 to 6 in the Senate.
What does it do? The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, requiring businesses to provide the disabled "equal access" and to make "reasonable accommodation" for employees. Tax credits and deductions are available for special equipment (talking computers, for instance) and modifying buildings to comply with the accessibility mandate.
The ADA was supposed to help more disabled people find jobs. But did it?
Strangely, no. An MIT study found that employment of disabled men ages 21 to 58 declined after the ADA went into effect. Same for women ages 21 to 39.
How could employment among the disabled have declined?
Because the law turns "protected" people into potential lawsuits. Most ADA litigation occurs when an employee is fired, so the safest way to avoid those costs is not to hire the disabled in the first place.
Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and author of the blog, says that the law was unnecessary. Many "hire the handicapped" programs existed before the ADA passed. Sadly, now most have been quietly discontinued, probably because of the threat of legal consequences if an employee doesn't work out.
Under the ADA, Olson notes, fairness does not mean treating disabled people the same as non-disabled people. Rather it means accommodating them. In other words, the law requires that people be treated unequally.
The law has also unleashed a landslide of lawsuits by "professional litigants" who file a hundred suits at a time. Disabled people visit businesses to look for violations, but instead of simply asking that a violation be corrected, they partner with lawyers who (legally) extort settlement money from the businesses.
Some disabled people have benefited from changes effected by the ADA, but the costs are rarely accounted for. If a small business has to lay off an employee to afford the added expense of accommodating the disabled, is that a good thing — especially if, say, customers in wheelchairs are rare? Extra-wide bathroom stalls that reduce the overall number of toilets are only some of the unaccounted-for costs of the ADA. And since ADA modification requirements are triggered by renovation, the law could actually discourage businesses from making needed renovations as a way of avoiding the expense.
A few disabled people speak up against the law. Greg Perry, author of "Disabling America: The Unintended Consequences of the Government's Protection of the Handicapped," says that because the disabled now represent an added expense to businesses, many resent them.
Finally, the ADA has led to some truly bizarre results. Exxon gave ship captain Joseph Hazelwood a job after he completed alcohol rehab. Hazelwood then drank too much and let the Exxon Valdez run aground in Alaska. Exxon was sued for allowing it to happen. So Exxon prohibited employees who have had a drug or drinking problem from holding safety-sensitive jobs.

The result? You guessed it — employees with a history of alcohol abuse sued under the ADA, demanding their "right" to those jobs. The federal government (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) supported the employees. Courts are still trying to sort it out.
More money for the parasites.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at

8 comments from readers  

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John, Here in Orange County, CA we've lost a Courthouse (in South County) because it was not ADA friendly. Now the 40,000+ residents of South County now have to drive either an additional 25 miles to downtown Santa Ana, or if they're lucky to Newport Beach. Because of California's desperate financial circumstances, it will be another 20 years before its replaced, if ever. Rather than inconvenience a few the fastest section of the counties residents are denied the convenience of a local courthouse.
As usual, you are insightful and interesting. I have heard ADA called the "lawyers retirement act", as they will make so much off of the fights over it.

I have a friend who is very good at getting around the spirit of any law. He has mild asthma, but when a golf course is on a "carts only" rule, he uses his asthma to be able to have his cart flagged and drive it all over the course.

I enjoy your show on FBN, too.
I agree with Mr. Stossel. However, his essay begs the question: what's the solution? How do we possibly begin to dismantle the thousands of local, state, and federal regulations and laws that make it nearly impossible to run a business without hiring a cadre of attorneys and accountants? I honestly don't see how voting the leeches out and putting new, small-government proponents in could ever work on a large enough scale to kill the beast.
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Thank you for speaking out!!!

I have done lots of risky things in my life. I've hitchhiked and picked up hitchhikers. I've done drugs and threesomes and been deported for working without a permit (in Mexico.) I've smuggled guns and drugs and illegal aliens. I've drunk water from irrigation canals in the Middle East. But I've never done anything scarier than to open a retail business on Main St., USA.

By the second week I found myself thinking, "I could still get out of this. I could fake my own death."

Our local ADA litigator came into my Chicken Store at one point with a camera, complaining that the sawdust on the floor was an impediment to wheelchair navigation. One of my employees started to apologize. "Don't," I said. "He's not a customer, he is only here to sue us." The self-appointed ADA inspector sputtered something about coming back later, and that was the last we saw of him.

I came to believe that ADA exists not to make life easier for the handicapped, but rather to make the non-handicapped miserable as well.

I wish I could get your show in my area without paying a premium! I miss you on 20/20, it is not the same with you gone.
My favorite is "handicapped" parking. Day after day at work, employees and clients are forced to park blocks away, while the mandated 10 (10!!) "handicapped" spots are perpetually free spaces in our parking lot.

Conversely, at the store, I routinely see sports cars -- with handicapped tags -- whip into the spots and spry 30-somethings jumping out to do their shopping.
Excellent! The only flaw is that the founders of the E-ADA (the Evil Americans with Disabilities Act) never had good intentions towards the truly handicapped any more than the founders of unions had good intentions towards workers.

Making the ADA into a law during a time when America was not treating the handicapped with disdain required some positioning. The advocates would need to change peopleâ??s perception of handicapped people from survivors into victims to generate sympathy for the cause. And so a major campaign began immediately to portray the handicapped as victims. Interestingly, today ADA proponents frown on the term victim. The Easter Seals of Southern California makes it clear that "victim" is a label never to be used when discussing disabled people.

The conversion of the publicâ??s perception of respect and admiration of the handicapped to coercion and guilt trips would be an up-hill climb, a hill worthy of the most solid ADA-required ramps and grab bars. The most detailed account appears in Walter K. Olsonâ??s The Excuse Factory, an exposé of legal paralysis in the workplace. In his book, Olson describes the difficulty that the ADA faced in the creation of a class of victims who were not treated as victims and did not consider themselves victims.

The ADA was founded to increase governmental income and control - not to protect the handicapped from discrimination.
There is nothing well intentioned about promoting one group of people over another. This is just yet another example of government trying to social engineer us and take from one group and give to another by force.

The government should be blind and deaf to anything unique about the citizens of this country. It's irrelevant. Every man, woman and child should stand to the government in exactly the same way that they stand to the law. Equal in all respects under the law and the government without favortism.

Because the government has only one way of giving to one person: To steal from another. Whether it be borrowing, which just defers the theft, or printing money, which hides the theft, or artificially enabling one person over another through legislation, they're all the same: Theft.

The only just government is one that cannot tax. It charge for voluntary services rendered and that is limited to protecting us from exactly and only 5 real crimes:

1. Murder
2. Physical Assault of person or property
3. Trespass on private property
4. Theft of private property or Slavery of the individual
5. Liable, Slander, Blackmail or the threat of violence or physical harm to control another's or group's actions through an intentional misrepresentation of the facts known to the person at the time of the act.

There is no other just actions of government. (both foreign and domestic) and even these must be done at the request of the individual and only charged for services rendered at that request.
Sounds like pecuniary paradise, if you're an "Atheist, Communist and Leftist Union" shyster, or other leech. For the productive and working who have to pay the socialists every time they turn around, not so much.

The "land of opportunity" is turning into the land of opportunism: Chalk up another one for neo-conartists and their leftist "compassionate conservatism".

Could equal justice under law ever be resurrected, or are we stuck with ever-increasing amounts of toxic "social justice" communism sweeping away individual liberty?
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