Scott Sumner  

The ADA seems to have failed

Thoughts on the Caplan/Jones D... My view of macro...

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.

By the way, the law was passed in 1990 with strong support from both liberals and conservatives. An economist named Walter Oi was one of the few lonely voices warning that a "rights" based approach would fail.

Although Oi was a US citizen, born in the United States, he was put in an internment camp in WWII because his parents were from Japan. In 1942, many of the best and the brightest thought these internment camps were a good idea. In 1990, many of the best and the brightest thought the ADA was a good idea. Don't let anyone intimidate you for going against the conventional wisdom by holding "unacceptable" opinions. If you have good reasons for your contrarian opinion, then history will vindicate you.

By the way, Walter Oi was blind.

Comments and Sharing

CATEGORIES: Labor Market

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Thomas writes:

The "right" to "fully participate" is risible. A person with a significant impairment (e.g., deafness, blindness, paraplegia) cannot "fully participate," by definition. This is another reminder that embers of Congress and presidents think of themselves as god-like creatures who can overcome the realities of nature and human nature.

MG writes:

Irony: How do we untangle the ADA's unique contribution to this unsatisfying labor market outcome, when so many other concurrent and subsequent Progressive initiatives could have also contributed (a lot)?

Blackbeard writes:

As an engineer I can tell you that meeting ADA requirements is quite expensive. Isn't it possible that the dramatic slowdown in economic growth we are experiencing is due, at least in part, to expensive regulations like this one that actually accomplish very little?

Don't even get me started on environmental regulations.

B Cole writes:

In my former lonely neighborhood in Los Angeles, where there was nobody in a wheelchair, every street corner was modified to allow wheelchair access. I could not imagine what that would cost nationally. I hope skateboarders get use from it.

As for the disabled working less, that may have something to do with expanded "disability" claims at the VA (now 4 million) and SSDA (8 million). The disability programs have become the worst sort of welfare.

An igyt writes:

When I met Oi in 1998 or so, he was also disabled -- blind. Was that the case when he wrote the essay on the ADA?

ThomasH writes:

I cannot figure out what in the first paragraph you cite you think led to the results in the second paragraph or how you'd like to see the Act changed. Would repeal restore the percentages employed? All the things one sees like elevators as alternatives to stairs and ramps for wheelchairs and battery powered carts seem like they would help the disabled to be employed. What do you think went wrong?

ZC writes:

To say it failed is to misunderstand the intent of those who passed it. It was never intended to increase the employment rate of the disabled. The politicians that signed off on it did so knowing they'd score easy political points ('look, we help people with problems'), the early champions of the cause were afflicted with disabilities such as blindness or plegia (undoubtedly well meaning, but no amount of good intentions would help them see or walk again, but forcing businesses to spend billions sure would feel good), and the lobbyists and attorneys who worked behind the scenes recognized the golden goose that it would become.

One more example of Republican 'conservatives' , despite their alleged desire to reign in Big Government and senseless spending, facilitating the enactment of laws that massively increase the scope of government, decrease the freedom of private individuals, and force the wasteful spending of billions (signed into law by GHWBush and expanded and amended by GWBush).

And for anyone who would argue that the downsides are worth the added access that some have experienced, just peruse a few of the hundreds of thousands of legal cases brought about related to the ADA and shudder at the trivial absurdities that have been used as justification to bring about lawsuits resulting in the expenditure of billions of dollars and millions of man hours since the enactment of this travesty.

Yaakov writes:

Thanks for the post.

The link under "David H. Autor and Mark Duggan" seems to lead to an article by Peter David Blanck.

Levi Russell writes:

"Don't let anyone intimidate you for going against the conventional wisdom by holding "unacceptable" opinions. If you have good reasons for your contrarian opinion, then history will vindicate you."

Easy for you to say, you aren't an assistant professor! ;)

Mike W writes:

So are you, and others, saying that all the spending that resulted from the ADA...the wheelchair ramps and such...were not public goods infrastructure? That the costs exceeded the benefits...if all benefits are counted including "equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living" and not just "economic self-sufficiency"?

Your conclusion seems to come from a very non-economic analysis.

David R. Henderson writes:

@An igyt,
When I met Oi in 1998 or so, he was also disabled -- blind. Was that the case when he wrote the essay on the ADA?
Yes. He went blind in graduate school in the early 1960s.

Boris writes:

> I hope skateboarders get use from it.

The main non-disabled users of curb cuts I've seen are:

1) Parents with strollers.
2) People rolling a cart with groceries home from
the store.
3) Children bicycling.

All of these are, of course, more likely in more walkable areas; if everyone is totally car-bound then no one is using the sidewalks anyway.

BC writes:

@ThomasH, I agree that the links don't seem to explain very clearly the connection between the ADA and low employment among the disabled. Walter Oi's Section in this piece [], starting on p. 31 provides more detail.

There are two hypotheses to explain the disabled's poor employment record: (1) disabilities reduce productivity, especially by "stealing time" available for work or (2) employers discriminate against the disabled and underestimate their productivity. The ADA is based on hypothesis (2), creating rights for the disabled, enforced by regulation and lawsuits (the "rights track"). Oi believed that hypothesis (1) was correct and that efforts should be directed towards assisting the disabled and training them to re-enter the labor market, i.e., helping them deal with their disabilities. He predicted that the "rights track" approach would lead to lots of lawsuits and income opportunities for lawyers and compliance personnel but would encourage the disabled to become more dependent on the state, frequently turning to courts to address their grievances.

@Mike W, on p. 41 from my same link above, Oi discusses how the ADA actually ignores social costs and benefits in some cases, when addressing equal access to services and places.

I am not an expert on disabilities issues. I am just trying to understand and relay Oi's views. I guess the main question is whether the disabled's main challenges are due to discrimination or impairment. Remedies addressing the two are different, and the ADA assumes that the problem is discrimination. It seems reasonable to believe that a law that misidentifies the cause will not be effective in solving the problem.

James writes:

I'm sure none of the initial supporters of the ADA expected such an outcome. It would be nice if the initial proponents of new policies would specify their expected outcomes and also what sort of outcomes they would accept as unambiguous evidence that their proposed policy was a failure and in need of replacement. But people do not like to do this.

Anonymous writes:


I'm not sure the two hypotheses are so completely decoupled. If a person having a disability reduces their productivity, employers will discriminate against them by preferring candidates who are not disabled and are therefore more productive. Is that the reduced productivity hypothesis or is it the discrimination hypothesis?

ThomasH writes:


I know nothing of ADA either but the premise surely ought to be that both impairment and discrimination play a part. I agree that the policies to deal with them are distinct. The "rights" approach ought to have the advantage of giving the employing firm an incentive to find the least costly way to make employment possible but of course the downside is that it is basically a tax on employment of the impaired. Ideally, firms would be subsidized but I have no idea how to relate the subsidy to degree of impairment.

Scott Sumner writes:

Thomas, There may be many reasons:

1. The rise of SSDI.

2. Making the disabled a group with special legals rights might make employers more reluctant to hire them. They might fear a lawsuit if things don't work out.

Yaakov, Thanks, I fixed it.

A "job" is not a definite thing. Employers know approximately what they are looking for and don't know well the capabilities of who they hire, disabled or not. The job may change as individuals adjust and trade off tasks in a workplace. Some people adapt and learn well; others do not.

The best social policy is to allow people, employers and employed, to make guesses and changes. Working in a job is the only sure way to know the value of an employee in that job or some related tasks not initially considered. People described as doing the same job will usually have different productivity, deserving of different wages.

The ADA rigidifies all of this. Ideally, one could hire a disabled person, see how he does, then fire him or adjust the wage as needed. But, firing a disabled person invites a lawsuit to justify the firing. The hiring is not considered a good act or a trial period which should allow the firing. Lowering the wage is "discrimination" inviting more lawsuits. Disabled people have sometimes created issues and lawsuits for other reasons. Disabled people are not angels.

It is easier to not hire. It is a tribute to the good will of employers and their desire for profits that some will carefully consider the disabled despite the minefield of the ADA.

The path to more employment for the disabled is to make them entirely ordinary in employment. Make it easy to hire, fire, and set wages for them, and everyone.

Njnnja writes:

There are 2 parts of the ADA: the employment provisions and the public accommodations provisions. The public accommodations provisions cost business owners a lot of money but it was a relatively straightforward case of the public (through its duly elected representatives) weighing the pros and cons of putting this burden on business owners with the pros and cons of leaving disabled people with voluntary access and decided that making access mandatory was better.

The employment provisions are more troubling, particularly based on the data point that you provide. But I think that the reduction in employment is a possible case of Simpson's paradox that does not appropriately account for a change in mix of what is called "disabled." A few minutes of Googling was unable to provide hard data, but I think that disabilities like soft tissue and mental and nervous disorders have become more prevalent in recent years, while something like paraplegia has remained (relatively) constant. It is not hard to imagine that even though employment rates for paraplegics have been improved by ADA, that improvement has been hidden by the large influx of soft tissue and mnh type claims, for which employment rates could be overall much lower. Which would imply that the ADA was successful in its goal of providing more employment to those who were disabled when the law was passed, and yet, the law needs updating to reflect changed facts and circumstances.

LD Bottorff writes:

Is the employment rate for lawyers lower or higher now that the ADA has passed? How many legislators lost their jobs because they voted for its passage? These are the questions that must be asked when deciding if the ADA is a failure.

Jesse C writes:

I'll never forget this sad consequence of ADA: wheelchair ramps to nowhere

adam writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

dbeach writes:

It seems like a pretty big reach to draw conclusions about the ADA based on this information. Perhaps the decline in employment among people with disabilities would have been even greater in the absence of the ADA. In any case the mechanism for the ADA's having actively *caused* the decline seems weak.

There's just too much missing here. How has the disabled population changed over the period in question? (More veterans or fewer? What disabilities do they have? Etc.) If I were looking to explain this situation I would be looking at the disability benefits programs and the overall softness in the labor market, not at ADA.

Hyena writes:

Skimming over the article, I see no reason to support Sumner's conclusion. The article itself notes that the expansion of SSDI along with its work restrictions has caused disemployment. Most importantly, more people with a disabling condition who are not, in fact, profoundly disabled by it receive SSDI than they did in the past.

That is, there isn't a failure of the ADA implied. Rather, people rationally prefer to collect SSDI over working. That's an unsurprising finding given the kinds of work generally available to people with similar profiles ex disability. The obvious solution is just to remove the work rules in SSDI.

Jon H writes:

I think Njnnja is on the right track. The kinds of disabilities of 40-50 year olds in 1988 could include things like disabilities due to polio and other things for which vaccines were later developed. And the development of penicillin and other antibiotics would also play a part with reducing disability from other diseases. So long-lasting disabilities from these conditions would be much rarer among the 2008 cohort.

Perhaps the disabilities of 40-50 year olds in 2008 are somewhat less conducive to employment than those in 1988? Disability involving severe chronic pain rather than vision impairment for example. I can imagine it being quite hard to concentrate on one's task, if in constant pain, or constantly on painkillers.

Speaking of pain, I suppose it's possible that the # of self-described disabled people might be inflated to some extent by people doctor shopping to get today's prescription opiates. They probably wouldn't be in a hurry to work, either.

Jon H writes:

BC wrote: "I guess the main question is whether the disabled's main challenges are due to discrimination or impairment. Remedies addressing the two are different, and the ADA assumes that the problem is discrimination."

Why not both? Why force it into one or the other?

It seems likely to me that Oi's preference of assisting the disabled themselves would be pointless if employers remain reluctant to hire them. (Hardly a far-fetched scenario, given that employers need encouragement just to hire able-bodied military veterans.)

You could give a quadriplegic a fully mobile robotic exoskeleton and some employer would still be all "It's just weird. And the noise of the servos drives me nuts. And what if he falls on someone? They'd be crushed."

Further, the precise assistance necessary for a disabled person may be somewhat job-specific. And may involve expensive equipment. As such, it makes some sense for the employer to be responsible for providing it, because there may be standardization issues, compatibility questions, etc. Large employers may be able to get discounts from suppliers, advantageous lease terms, etc.

I'm not clear on how Oi's system would work.

I'm not sure what sort of assistance Oi would suggest for, say, a person with dwarfism. Certainly a blind or deaf person can be given cane, braille terminal, hearing aids, etc, and training in getting around safely, and that would help a lot. But would a little person be provided with a step stool to carry around? Stilts?

Jon H writes:

"I'll never forget this sad consequence of ADA: wheelchair ramps to nowhere"

Isn't it more likely that that's a Detroit dysfunction thing, not so much an ADA thing?

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top