[Opinion] The ADA is Crippling Job Opportunities for the Disabled

PDBRHandicapped Veteran. Photo: Military Health System

According to a new article from the Brookings Institution, only 4 in 10 disabled Americans are employed, even as there is now an available job for every unemployed American seeking work. As counter intuitive as it may seem, one of the reasons for low levels of disabled employment is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If the United States wishes to improve levels of disabled employment, the ADA should be repealed.

Here is some context for those unfamiliar with the ADA: The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 and made discrimination in public services and accommodations on the basis of disability illegal. It also mandated equal employment opportunity for disabled Americans and required businesses with 15 or more employees to provide reasonable accommodations defined as “any modification or adjustment to a job or the work environment that will enable [anyone] with a disability to participate in the application process or to perform essential job functions.” In 2008, the ADA was amended to include a broader array of disabilities, and this was followed up by Department of Justice regulations issued in 2016 that further expanded who is covered under the ADA.

Bush_signs_in_ADA_of_1990.jpgPresident George H.W Bush signing the ADA in 1990. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Staunch conservatives and libertarians who oppose the ADA do so on both ideological and practical grounds. From an ideological standpoint, opponents of the ADA critique the act as another example of overzealous federal intervention and say it places an undue burden on business owners.

While this critique of the ADA may be legitimate in the eyes of classical liberals and small government advocates, there is a much stronger, practical reason to oppose the ADA: it simply does not help disabled Americans. If a bill that is designed to benefit disabled Americans actually harms them by restricting their employment opportunities, it cannot withstand any rudimentary cost-benefit analysis and should be repealed. The ADA falls perfectly into this category.

There is a strong body of evidence indicating that the ADA does increase but rather decreases disabled employment. According to a study by Samuel Bagenstos, Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, the employment rate for disabled Americans fell in the first six years after the ADA was enacted. For Americans who fell under the NHIS’s broad “impairment” definition, there was an approximate 7% decrease in the employment rate for disabled men and a .5% decrease in the employment rate for disabled women between 1990 and 1996. Based on data from the NHIS, the CPS, and the SIPP, disabled men who fell into the more narrowly defined “work limitation” category experienced a 6 to 9% decline in employment and disabled women in the same category experienced a similar 1.3 to 2.3% decline in employment. Thomas DeLeire, of the Institute for Labor Economics, found similar results when examining SIPP data and the effects that the ADA had on the employment rate for disabled Americans. Across both varying definitions of the term “disabled” as well as genders, there is quantitative evidence to indicate that the ADA actually decreases the employment of disabled Americans.

FEMA_-_29783_-_Workers_unemployed_by_the_freeze_in_California.jpgUnemployment lines. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There have been various theories put forward to explain this phenomenon but the general consensus is that the cost of compliance imposed on business owners by the ADA has been enough to reduce the labor demand for disabled workers. Between the fear of frivolous lawsuits and the costs of the legal requirements mandated by the ADA, business owners view the hiring of disabled workers as too expensive and too risky. Thus, the ADA creates a disincentive for owners to hire disabled workers, despite its altruistic intentions to do the exact opposite.

In an ideal world (from the classical liberal perspective, that is) Congress would not be perpetually dysfunctional and there would be a full repeal of the ADA, returning the issue to individual states. States could then pass their own laws to entice disabled Americans to work and reside in locations that provided them the best legal protections and economic opportunities. Recognizing the idealism and implausibility of this notion, a practical policy solution would be either a “soft repeal” of just the labor-oriented provisions of the ADA or an amendment to the ADA which would allow disabled workers to waive their legal protections under the ADA, thereby decreasing the risk incurred by business owners who hired disabled workers.

Prominent disabled Americans have come out in opposition to the ADA, arguing that the ADA limits available economic opportunities for disabled Americans while doing nothing to improve their quality of life. If disabled Americans are to have more economic opportunities, we should begin with repealing policies that actively discourage such opportunities. The ADA is no exception.

Grant Pecheck is a rising senior at Davidson College in Charlotte, NC where he studies political science and economics. He has previously worked on Capitol Hill, congressional campaigns, and at a free market think tank.

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