Commentary

The Bush Family Handicaps Freedom

By Edward L. Hudgins
February 23, 2001
Alas, like father like son. For former President George Bush it was a kinder, gentler America. For current President George W. Bush it is compassionate conservatism. In 1990 George the First gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, in 2001 George the Second wants to spend $880 million in taxpayer funds for technologies to assist the handicapped. Both men mean well; the burdens often faced by Americans with disabilities are real and deserve attention. But the legal havoc loosed by the ADA should caution us against compassion without common sense.

The ADA was disingenuous from the beginning, stating that there are 43 million Americans with disabilities. But at the time of its passage there were about 3 million individuals who were blind, deaf or in wheelchairs, conditions normally thought of as disabilities. The other 40 million came from the fact that “disabled” is defined so broadly that bad backs or old age can place one in that class.

In the decade since its passage, the ADA has not helped more disabled Americans enter the workforce; the percent employed has remained at about one-third.

The ADA, in fact, discourages companies from hiring the handicapped. Julie Hofius, a bar-approved law school graduate who uses a wheelchair, complains that because they “cannot talk openly with disabled candidates [ADA prohibits it], employers are reluctant to hire them and simply hope they’ll go away without a lawsuit.”

Employers are supposed to provide “reasonable accommodation” for disabled workers. But what are claimed as disabilities and accommodations are often anything but reasonable. For example, a New York subway worker claimed his 400-lb. bulk was his handicap and asked that cabs on all trains be modified so he could be promoted to conductor and fit in them.

Many of these absurd cases are dismissed. In fact, of the nearly 20,000 discrimination complaints filed each year at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, over 90 percent are not adjudicated for the plaintiff. This is a sign of a bad law; it attracts thousands of nuisance complaints and each innocent enterprise is stuck paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills. Such a regime hardly encourages companies to hire the handicapped.

Once a bad law is in place, bureaucrats proceed to make it worse. Several years ago the EEOC issued guidelines concerning employees whose disability is that they are so emotionally unbalanced that they find the sight and sound of their fellow workers distracting. The EEOC said employers might need to provide visibility and sound barriers for such “disabled” workers. Why not padded rooms for those workers and, while we’re at it, bullet proof vests for fellow employees who could be endangered by such misanthropes?

The ADA has done one public policy service. It has revealed massive and ongoing fraud in the Social Security Disability Insurance program. That program provides financial assistance for those with handicaps so severe that they are unable to perform any “gainful work which exists in the national economy.” But many workers who lose jobs collect such benefits while filing ADA employment discrimination complaints, claiming they can do their job well, though perhaps with some “reasonable accommodation.” These claims are mutually exclusive. But such double dipping continues.

The new Bush administration appreciates that technology can empower those with disabilities. For example, one device on the market translates words from a computer screen into Braille so that blind Americans can read the contents of Web sites or text files. But the federal government is more likely to force technology in economically irresponsible ways. For example, the ADA promotes wheelchair lifts for buses. But for many cities it might be far more economical to provide door-to-door limo service. And many Americans with mobility problems might prefer not to wait for a bus in the snow, sleet or rain.

Federal agencies are now mandated to make their Web sites handicapped-friendly. This is appropriate. But already the feds are considering forcing certain federal contractors to do the same. It will only be a matter of time before schools, all enterprise that deals with the government, and everybody else are subject to such costly, Internet-killing mandates.

Compassion is fine, but when the administration blinds itself to the problems with the ADA, policies built on that Act will likely do more harm than good.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.