ADA’s 20th Anniversary

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and celebratory discussions, events and rallies are underway (sometimes with taxpayer help) in Washington, D.C. and around the country. Few if any of the events will include any panelists who are skeptical about the law, and indeed much press coverage nowadays treats the ADA as if it were uncontroversial, with at best a nod to libertarian commentators who see it as a coercive and fabulously expensive government venture into what ought to be private decision-making. When Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul recently voiced some relatively mild criticism of the law, he drew heated criticism for days.

Which is not to say the ADA and related legislation does not continue to generate startling and unsettling results on a regular basis. Thus in recent months a New Jersey jury ordered a rheumatologist to pay $400,000 for not providing a deaf patient with a sign language interpreter at his own expense; the Ninth Circuit ruled that the law may require movie theaters to provide captions and descriptions for blind or deaf viewers; a federal appeals court ruled that the nation’s paper currency unfairly discriminates against the disabled and must be redesigned (thus taking a different view from the National Federation of the Blind, which doesn’t think there’s a problem); a police dispatcher won a settlement in her lawsuit saying she was unfairly discriminated against because of her narcolepsy (tendency to fall asleep at inappropriate times); a large online tutoring service agreed to provide interpreters; miniature golf courses learned they will have to make 50 percent of their holes accessible to wheelchair users; and so forth. On Friday the Department of Justice announced that it would revisit the high-stakes question of whether and to what extent website operators must make their designs and services “accessible” to disabled computer users, perhaps in onerous and expensive ways.

One reason for the law’s immunity from criticism is that it is defended as a matter of identity politics: if you’re against it, then you must be against the people it protects. So it is treated as rude, not merely provocative, to bring up the failure of the original ADA premise that the new law would “pay for itself” by increasing the labor force participation of the disabled (the rate declined instead). Or to question the law’s “all for one, one for all” extension of the disability label to cover alcoholics, the mentally ill, and the mentally retarded, groups whose problems have historically been seen as quite different from those of the blind, deaf or paraplegic. Or to mention the money-driven ADA “filing mills” in California, Florida and other states under which complainants roam the land filing hundreds of similar complaints against local businesses which their lawyers then convert into assembly-line cash settlements.

No, the most suitable way to mark an identity-politics milestone may be to turn to those who have been obliged to think through some of the identity-politics issues from the inside. Among those who’ve criticized the ADA from a disabled perspective are Russell Redenbaugh, a blind businessman and member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission (“My own fear is that the ADA implementing regulations can have a chilling effect on the hiring of the disabled.”), attorney and wheelchair user Julie Hofius (law makes job-seeking harder by “inhibiting free discussion between interviewer and interviewee”), and Greg Perry, author of the book Disabling America: The Unintended Consequences of the Government’s Protection of the Handicapped (“caring by gunpoint”). Their writings might be a place to start in figuring out whether we should aspire to another 20 years of ADA more intense than the last.