CODI: Cornucopia of Disability Information

Don't Straightjacket the Law

Don't Straightjacket the Law

LA Times, July 21, 1995
Edward B. Bennett, III T

he Americans with Disabilities Act is under attack. Despite its successes. the ADA confronts a small but determined group bent on its repeal or weakening. Critics argue that it costs too much, promotes frivolous litigation, enjoys no business support, and mandates federal intrusion while discouraging negotiation and ignoring market forces. They are wrong on all counts.

The ADA is a market sensitive civil rights act. It explicitly permits businesses to spend only what they can afford. It requires "reasonable" expenditures as it balances legitimate cost concerns with the ideal of integration. The balance works. The ADA$s ideal can often be realized simply and inexpensively. A ramp, a sign or a telephone will do. According to the Job Accommodation Network, fully one third of workplace accommodations costs nothing; another third averages less than $500.

All buildings "accommodate" someone. Architects design structures to accommodate those who typically use them. The ADA simply insists that we accommodate everyone, not just those who walk or see. Discrimination and segregation in the pre-ADA world taxed everyone heavily.

Americans with disabilities suffer an unemployment rate of 69% (as against 17% in the former West Germany, where employment policies aggressively promote jobs), and we spend billions on welfare programs for people who would rather work and pay taxes than collect government checks.

People with disabilities - I am one of them - want to create the wealth that makes access possible. We want a bigger pie for everybody, not a larger slice of a shrinking pie. We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, but we need to be able to board the ship.

Believe-it-or-not lawsuits do not define the ADA. Not every case makes sense, but atypical fringe cases obscure the truth: Discrimination exists and this law successfully fights it. A typical suits make good sound bites, but the less glamorous truth is that we predominately use the ADA to build an accessible world ramp by ramp, building by building, town by town.

I'm sympathetic to complaints about arbitrary law enforcement. As a bank Personnel Director, I faced an audit by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance. I worked in a recently renovated two story building, and we had, in compliance with the law, made the first floor bathroom accessible and installed an elevator connecting the two floors. The auditor insisted that the law required us to make the second floor bathroom accessible. The kicker: I use a wheelchair and I knew the law better than he did. We had complied fully, and when I proved it, he backed down. This instance to the contrary, I discovered that capricious oversight is rare. Today, the ADA$s legitimate ends are usually enforced fairly and flexibly.

Businesses complain about bureaucratic inflexibility and regulatory rigidity. The law responds by providing a general framework rather than imposing rigid standards. It imposes some precise architectural standards, but generally the Act gives businesses room to maneuver.

People with disabilities negotiate more than they sue. Most accommodations flow from private, inexpensive negotiations, not from courtrooms. Critics argue that the business community opposes the ADA. A July Harris poll forcefully says otherwise. 82% of executives agree that the law is worth its costs, and 70% said it should not be changed.

We need the ADA because of the enduring power of these myths. Critics suffer from the problem the law tries to cure. They hold a distorted view of the capacities of people with disabilities, the discrimination they suffer and the cost of curbing that discrimination. Fortunately, the ADA educates as much as it prescribes.

This law, passed in 1990, works. It$s moderate blend of idealism and pragmatism, and its respect for markets, public responsibility, and private action are slowly but profoundly changing our physical environment and our expectations of people with disabilities.

Few laws enjoy such universal support. Both Houses of Congress passed the ADA with near unanimity and a Republican President (George Bush) signed it into law. Its bipartisan character derives in part from the understanding that anyone, Republican or Democrat, can become disabled.

The ADA's promise is within our grasp. We are building a society in which everyone can participate. Now we can begin expecting people with disabilities to meet the demands of citizenship.

Ed Bennett is co-chair of the ACLU's National Disability Rights Task Force. He has quadriplegia.