ADA Success? At What?

President Bush celebrated the 11-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act by calling for the regulatory screws to be tightened against American business.

In his recent radio address, he touted something called the New Freedom Initiative, which will spend more money to increase enforcement of public accommodations and anti-discrimination regulations related to disability. He further promised continuing government efforts so long as "some barriers remain" for disabled people.

That will be until the end of time. There is nothing that government can do to tear down all barriers for everyone regardless of physical or mental ability. Can you imagine that Bush proposes such a totalitarian idea so casually? In normal times, such utterances would be cited as proof of insanity or despotic ambition.

In a free society, the law sets basic rules to head off conflicts between people and how they use their property. To the extent it is involved in uplifting some groups at the expense of others, it takes away freedom. If people’s freedom of association is attacked, freedom loses again. There’s a wicked Orwellian irony in the name "New Freedom Initiative."

The ADA has delivered blow after blow to liberty. It has forced employers to hire and promote according to the government’s priorities and not those of the enterprise. It has compelled businessmen to make changes to their physical structure at their own expense (and so the regulations work like a tax). It has forced them to pay for costly litigation to defend themselves against the claim that they have discriminated. It has imposed huge costs on state and local governments, and told them to tax their citizens to fund these costs.

On the receiving end of the money transfers are the usual suspects. Attorneys with specializations in disability law have done very well. So have those who make a living filing lawsuits against business. Labor- and architectural-consulting firms have made a killing, as have construction companies beloved of state and local pols, and the manufacturers of special equipment designed to help the disabled.

And after all this, what has been the result for the disabled themselves? Not jobs and empowerment, as Bush claims. Look at any measure of disability employment as provided by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, and the National Organization on Disability, and you find the same pattern: employment has not improved on net or has gotten worse.

From 1986 to 1991, two years after the law took effect, unemployment among the mildly disabled went down slightly (14.8 to 12.4). But among the moderately and severely disabled, unemployment went up from 21.4% to 27.9%. Looking at a longer string of data through 1994, workforce participation rates went slightly down among men (from 60% to 58%) and slightly up among women. In 1986, 66% of unemployed people with disabilities wanted work but couldn’t find it. Today, 79% percent of them can’t find work.

How can we explain this? It’s easy. Businesses are terrified of hiring people with a moderate or severe disability. Fire them or fail to promote them, and they could cost you hundreds of thousands in legal expenses.

It doesn’t matter how compassionate you are toward these people. It is irresponsible to put the future of the business and hence the owners, customers, and workers, at risk. But to ward off the social managers, you can hire the mildly disabled, and these days, just about any employee can dream up something that qualifies as a disability.

It’s very difficult to talk about certain obvious truths on this subject, but let’s give it a try. Disabled people are designated as such because they are, well, disabled, and thus bear a burden that affects their productive capacity. It is all well and good to accommodate them in every way possible, but it is unrealistic to expect them to earn the same as others. If a business is going to employ them, the business must be able to be flexible with regards to compensation.

The surest way to shut these people out of the workforce is for government to insist that the disabled be treated exactly like the nondisabled. Business will choose not to hire them, because that is far less risky than hiring them.

Or if they do choose to hire, they will do it in a way that meets a perceived quota. More importantly, the disabled are seen by business as walking legal timebombs, tolerated only because the government requires it.

Long-term studies of disabled employment show that the dominant factor in whether or not they are employed is the business cycle. In prosperous times, business takes in new employees, among whom are the disabled. In recessions, less productive employees must go (partly because of minimum wage floors and other evils that prevent businesses from negotiating their own wage contracts). If we favor maximum job opportunity, a prosperous economy, not regulations, is the key.

It’s remarkable to realize that the flat-to-falling trend for disability employment has occurred during the economic boom of the 1990s. Only bad law like the ADA can accomplish something like that.

If employment hasn’t gone up, what about dependency? It has gone through the roof. The number of people living off government payments to the disabled (Supplemental Security Income) has increased by two-thirds since 1989, from 4.2 million to 6.8 people. Far from increasing their independence, the ADA has landed another two and a half million people on the state’s dole. That’ s not empowerment.

What about Bush’s claim that the ADA has made our "country a fairer society, more considerate and welcoming to all our citizens"? Of course this is just a subjective impression, but it doesn’t ring true. Since the beginning of Christendom, the disabled among us have served as occasions of grace, to recall our good fortune and to encourage us never to take anything for granted. We are also reminded always to be charitable to those in need.

Leave it to the government to enact a law that turns all this on its head. The ADA, with its tax money, privileges, browbeating, lawsuits, impositions, and regulations, has conspired to turn the disabled into just another class of grasping public charges-not people to help because of their limitations, but people to resent because of their state-privileged status. So it would hardly be surprising to find that hostility toward them has increased.

The ADA has erected, not torn down, barriers to employment and the proper exercise of charity. There’s something fundamentally evil about a law that would do that. A president who cared about freedom and the status of the disabled in society would repeal the ADA, and defend the economics of liberty, not central planning by the central state, as enacted by Republicans.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail], is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.

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