The Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 20

July 26th, 2010 at 10:49 pm David Frum | 12 Comments |

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Blood moving too slow? Indignation seekers should read Walter Olson’s memorial to the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a testament to a generous idea turned into a litigation morass:

[I]n recent months a New Jersey jury ordered a rheumatologist to pay $400,000 for not providing a deaf patient with a sign language interpreter at his own expense; the Ninth Circuit ruled that the law may require movie theaters to provide captions and descriptions for blind or deaf viewers; a federal appeals court ruled that the nation’s paper currency unfairly discriminates against the disabled and must be redesigned (thus taking a different view from the National Federation of the Blind, which doesn’t think there’s a problem); a police dispatcher won a settlement in her lawsuit saying she was unfairly discriminated against because of her narcolepsy (tendency to fall asleep at inappropriate times); a large online tutoring service agreed to provide interpreters; miniature golf courses learned they will have to make 50 percent of their holes accessible to wheelchair users; and so forth. On Friday the Department of Justice announced that it would revisit the high-stakes question of whether and to what extent website operators must make their designs and services “accessible” to disabled computer users, perhaps in onerous and expensive ways.


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12 Comments so far ↓

  • Ruminant

    Many of those examples are much less damning than they sound.

    The police dispatcher, for example, was fired because she informed her superior of her condition, not because she had ever fallen asleep on the job. According to the article, her narcolepsy was controlled with medication and she had never once fallen asleep during training. Despite what you might see on TV, not all people with narcolepsy will fall asleep mid-sentence or while eating. The article was brief, but after reading it I get the impression that the dispatcher was fired because of ignorance and prejudice, which is exactly the sort of thing that the ADA should protect against.

    Similarly, the examples of the doctor who wouldn’t provide an interpreter and the movie theaters that wouldn’t show closed-captioned movies would not seem unreasonable to anyone who is shut out of the public sphere because he or she happens to be deaf/hard-of-hearing.

    On the subject of Internet accessibility, I agree that it is unreasonable to expect every website to conform to all of the W3C’s accessibility guidelines… but this doesn’t mean that the current state of the Internet, where 98% of all websites are “inaccessible”, is in any way acceptable. We should impose Internet accessibility regulations on websites in a similar manner to how we impose physical accessibility regulations, like ramps and elevators, upon businesses and other buildings.

  • rbottoms

    David, should you ever suffer a catastrophic accident you’d be singing out of the other side of your mouth. Assuming you weren’t left mute or had suffered so other disaster that might put you in a wheelchair needing the very Act you disparage.

    Every time I start to think you aren’t just another Republican jerk… well.

  • Stewardship

    ADA’s unintended consequence: the death of downtowns. In small city after small city, even villages with one block of ‘turn-of-the-century’ brick buildings, downtowns are rotting. Why? The buildings are often available cheap enough. But, it’s the ADA requirements for accessibility when a building is renovated or put into a different use. New steps, entry doors, interior doors, an elevator, bathrooms….puts those buildings out of reach for entrepreneurs in small towns…who are often trying to launch businesses from discretionary income from a spousal or day job.

    So, they go out to the edge of town and open their business in a pole building strip mall. Downtown deteriorates, and we begin to lose our sense of community.

  • sinz54

    Ruminant: According to the article, her narcolepsy was controlled with medication and she had never once fallen asleep during training.
    I can tell you from personal experience that chronic illnesses aren’t as well “controlled” with medication as you might think. Sometimes the medication stops working and you have to be switched to another. Sometimes you forget to take your morning pill and the symptoms return.

    Would YOU be willing to fly in a jetliner whose pilot and copilot both had narcolepsy that they claimed was “controlled” with medication?

    As for Internet websites:

    Has it ever occurred to liberals that the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. private sector are also the least controlled? Micro-electronics and Internet websites have grown fantastically fast, precisely because they didn’t have people like you putting demands on them.

    This whole business of “accessibility” has gotten completely out of control. In a less politically correct age, it was accepted by everybody that being handicapped (whatever happened to that word?) meant not being able to do everything that healthy people could do, by definition.

    The purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act should have been to enable handicapped people to obtain the necessities of life and hold down some kind of a job; NOT to try to establish some false equality with healthy people. That’s impossible, without society turning itself upside down to level healthy people with handicapped people–which is precisely what the A.D.A. has turned into.

  • Ruminant

    Would YOU be willing to fly in a jetliner whose pilot and copilot both had narcolepsy that they claimed was “controlled” with medication?
    Yes I would. Any pilot for a major airline will have several pilot’s licences (private, commercial, and probably instructor) which would have involved flying for dozens, possibly hundreds, of hours. Since there is a lot of competition for jobs as airline pilots (or at least, there used to be; I haven’t looked into the market recently), an airline pilot will have racked up hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of flight time before landing his job with the airline. If the pilot has narcolepsy, any potential issues with his or her condition would most likely have appeared well before that person stepped into the cockpit of a jet airliner.

    In many ways, flying a passenger jetliner is even more conducive to a pilot with narcolepsy than a single-seat Cessna might be. For some people with narcolepsy, “controlling” their condition might involve taking medication and also standing up to stretch every hour or two if their job requires sitting for extended periods of time. That accommodation seems totally reasonable for a plane with two pilots and room to walk around in. Another reasonable accommodation might be for the pilot to only make flights of 5 hours or less.

    I happen to know someone with mild narcolepsy, which is why I am open to the idea that these decisions should be made on an individual basis. But it’s rare enough that most people don’t know anyone with the disease, and so they assume that all cases of narcolepsy are as severe as the ones typically shown on TV or in movies… which are usually exaggerated for comedic purposes.

  • gman

    What happens with so many of these pieces of legislation is that we only see the extreme cases, and forget the original intent & what things were like before the Act. People will all manner of disabilities were literally shut out of jobs & society. The gov’t does have the responsibility to offer the opportunity for life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness to all citizens. There is no question that the ADA forces businesses to perform extra, and sometimes excessive, steps in offering their services, but what is equally lamentable is that those business, and the free market, did not in many cases take even the most basic steps at making their services accessible. The gov’t was forced to act because business didn’t, and the results were predictably heavy handed.

  • ADA’s anniversary, cont’d

    [...] reactions and links to my Cato piece yesterday: David Frum, Brian Doherty/Reason “Hit and [...]

  • msmilack

    what I found moving about this anniversary was this story out of Rhode Island:

    “Rep. Jim Langevin, today became the first person in a wheelchair to preside over the House. The occasion, made possible by a series of mechanical lifts recently installed in the Speaker’s rostrum, marked the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Langevin was accidentally shot in the chest at the age of 16 while working at a police department. Of course, if Congress were actually subject to the laws it passes, Langevin would probably have had access to the rostrum 20 years ago.”

    http://swampland.blogs.time.com/2010/07/26/historic-moment-langevin-presides-over-the-house/#ixzz0uthDoBNR

  • Madeline

    ADA’s unintended consequence: the death of downtowns. In small city after small city, even villages with one block of ‘turn-of-the-century’ brick buildings, downtowns are rotting.

    The death of the downtowns in small cities is a phenomenon which predates the ADA by nearly 20 years.

  • Rabiner

    Sinz54:

    “Has it ever occurred to liberals that the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. private sector are also the least controlled? Micro-electronics and Internet websites have grown fantastically fast, precisely because they didn’t have people like you putting demands on them.”

    Internet websites aren’t fast growing because there is zero upkeep after a 9$ domain fee. My sister who knows nothing of creating websites started her own cooking blog and how has 500 followers. All it took was a day of reading up on the subject and $9 for a domain fee for a year. When the overhead for creating a website is so low of course it will be fast growing.

  • Roddikinsathome

    sinz54

    “The purpose of the Americans with Disabilities Act should have been to enable handicapped people to obtain the necessities of life and hold down some kind of a job; NOT to try to establish some false equality with healthy people.”

    So this does this not pertain to me, then?
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    Noted. I’m 3/5 of a man, then. Thanks for clearing that up.

  • mickster99

    And just think about all the onerous costs associated with having to take down all those “whites only” signs as a result of civil rights legislation. If only Rand Paul had been around then. Just think of the millions in savings. Damn those trial lawyers. And of course their accomplices the bleeding heart liberals.