The Americans with Disabilities Act: Failure at Its Supposed Public Policy Purpose

By Brian Doherty - Posted November 17th, 2015

Economist Scott Sumner takes a look at the success of the Americans with Disabilities Act in its own terms and finds it wanting.


I noticed this in a paper by David H. Autor and Mark Duggan:

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) forcefully articulates this contemporary view of disability: "Physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person's right to fully participate in all aspects of society... The Nation's proper goals regarding individuals with disabilities are to assure equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for such individuals."

Later they report the effects of the legislation:

As documented in Figures 6a and 6b, the employment rate of males in their forties and fifties with a self-reported disability fell from 28 percent in 1988 to 16 percent in 2008 (approximately a 40 percent decline). The employment rate of comparably aged males without a disability held roughly constant at 87 to 88 percent. For females in this same age range with disabilities, the employment rate declined slightly (from 18 to 15 percent) while the employment rate of their counterparts without a disability rose from 66 to 76 percent.

It's difficult to think of a piece of legislation that failed more abysmally than the ADA. So now what to we do? Will the supporters of the ADA concede that it failed and call for repeal? Not likely. A cynic might claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act is not about getting disabled people into the workforce, it's about creating jobs for lawyers.

I'm guessing ADA defenders, with the employment aspect denied them to cheer about, would point instead to victories in easier public accomodations and movement for the small percentage of the disabled whose disabilities include depending on wheeled transportation for mobility or being sightless and deaf, but Sumner has a point.

On its 20th anniversary, I blogged about ADA's questionable successes. Further reporting about its use as a lawsuit abuse machine in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, a 2002 check-in on dubious legal precedents litigants attempted to set via ADA, and my big 1995 Reason cover feature about the ADA when it was fresh and new.

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