The Bush Family Handicaps Freedom

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Alas, like father like son. For former President George Bush it was akinder, gentler America. For current President George W. Bush it iscompassionate conservatism. In 1990 George the First gave us the Americanswith Disabilities Act. Now, in 2001 George the Second wants to spend $880million in taxpayer funds for technologies to assist the handicapped. Bothmen mean well; the burdens often faced by Americans with disabilities arereal and deserve attention. But the legal havoc loosed by the ADA shouldcaution us against compassion without common sense.

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

In the decade since its passage, the ADA has not helped more disabledAmericans enter the workforce; the percent employed has remained at aboutone-third.

The ADA, in fact, discourages companies from hiring the handicapped. JulieHofius, a bar-approved law school graduate who uses a wheelchair, complainsthat because they "cannot talk openly with disabled candidates [ADAprohibits it], employers are reluctant to hire them and simply hope they'llgo away without a lawsuit."

Employers are supposed to provide "reasonable accommodation" for disabledworkers. But what are claimed as disabilities and accommodations are oftenanything but reasonable. For example, a New York subway worker claimed his400-lb. bulk was his handicap and asked that cabs on all trains be modifiedso he could be promoted to conductor and fit in them.

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

Once a bad law is in place, bureaucrats proceed to make it worse. Severalyears ago the EEOC issued guidelines concerning employees whose disabilityis that they are so emotionally unbalanced that they find the sight andsound of their fellow workers distracting. The EEOC said employers mightneed to provide visibility and sound barriers for such "disabled" workers.Why not padded rooms for those workers and, while we're at it, bullet proofvests for fellow employees who could be endangered by such misanthropes?

The ADA has done one public policy service. It has revealed massive andongoing fraud in the Social Security Disability Insurance program. Thatprogram provides financial assistance for those with handicaps so severethat they are unable to perform any "gainful work which exists in thenational economy." But many workers who lose jobs collect such benefitswhile filing ADA employment discrimination complaints, claiming they can dotheir job well, though perhaps with some "reasonable accommodation." Theseclaims are mutually exclusive. But such double dipping continues.

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

Federal agencies are now mandated to make their Web siteshandicapped-friendly. This is appropriate. But already the feds areconsidering forcing certain federal contractors to do the same. It will onlybe a matter of time before schools, all enterprise that deals with thegovernment, and everybody else are subject to such costly, Internet-killingmandates.

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