Politicians, Please Stop “Helping” the Disabled

United States (FEE) – The fate of the disabled is a profoundly important moral issue. It speaks to the status of human rights and human dignity in a society. Will people – all people regardless of physical characteristics – be treated with respect and cared for with compassion and love, valued regardless of conditions which fate has imposed on them? Or will they be discarded and tossed out of the human family if they are insufficiently useful for our purposes?

And so Hillary Clinton, showing desperation to engage people in some moral issue, has chosen to take up the cause. The disabled are, “a group of Americans who are, too often, invisible, overlooked and undervalued — who have so much to offer, but are given far too few chances to prove it,” she said. “That’s been true for a long time,” she said, “and we have to change it.”

But wait just a minute. I vaguely recall that we’ve been here before. Oh yes, there was the gazillion-page law called the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the one that continues to vex American business and every contractor for every building.

So Much for Disability Rights

The more I look at the history of government involvement, the clearer the picture became.Right out of college, economics degree in hand, I landed a contract to consult for the American Disability Foundation as a special assistant to the president of the organization. I was thrilled because it was a prestige appointment, and because the issue is important to me. There are private family issues I’ve dealt with. Also, one of my best friends growing up was severely disabled and fired from a job, because the minimum wage made it too expensive to employ him.

My job was to look through the draft of what later became the ADA. I was mortified. It was going to dramatically increase the cost of hiring the disabled. It would turn people’s love of disabled people into fear of getting anywhere near them in a commercial setting. The building codes would be enormously expensive and discriminate against small businesses. The public accommodations law (such as that mandating parking) would contribute to making the disabled community objects of resentment.

The more I look at the history of government involvement, the clearer the picture became. The more spending, the more regulations, the more mandates, the worse the condition of the disabled became. Government involvement ended not in inclusion but exclusion and isolation. This was incredibly obvious to me. It would be to anyone with even the slightest bit of economics education.

So Much for Telling the Truth

The big shots in the organization already had made their arrangements with big shot politicians.Naively, I thought my job was to tell the truth. So, living in Washington, DC, I went to one of the top sponsors of the bill in the US Senate and warned him not to back its passage. He was aghast and must have called the head of the organization I represented. The head of the organization called me in and demanded to know what the heck I was doing. I explained to him that the ADA was a disaster in the making. I laid out all the economics. I showed him the charts. I explained to him how the hiring of disabled people works.

How did he respond? He blew up at me.

“People’s rights are being violated,” he yelled. “We must pass this bill!”

“But,” I explained, “this bill will lead to more rights being violated. It is going to cause mass unemployment and change public attitudes for the worse. I explain it all in this report.”

He didn’t read my report. I was very quickly dismissed from my post. You see, the whole organization had long ago decided that a Big Law was the way to go. No one could rethink, even when presented with evidence. The big shots in the organization already had made their arrangements with big shot politicians. They longed for the photoshoot day when the president would sign the bill and they would get the credit. They had already pillaged millions of good people with the promise that legislation would bring rights to the disabled. They were nowhere near ready to change their intellectual paradigm.

Effects of the ADA

The ADA remains today a great barrier to inclusion of disabled people in the workforce.And so the bill passed and went into effect in 1990. And what happened? Unemployment among the disabled not only failed to fall, it actually went up. An NBER study found, “no evidence that the ADA’s traditional employment protection rule, prohibiting firing and other employment decisions on the basis of disability, reduced disabled employment. … With respect to the ADA’s requirement of special accommodations for individuals with disabilities, the authors find a significant negative effect on disabled employment in the period just after the ADA’s enactment…”

Even the Bureau of Labor Statistics admits to finding “a decline in the number of weeks of employment for younger workers with disabilities after the ADA became effective.”

One thing that the law did do was increase the number of people willing to identify as disabled, which you might think would thereby reduce the number of unemployed disabled people, just as a statistical artifact. In fact, depending on how you define disabled, roughly half the population of disabled people remains jobless. It remains today a great barrier to inclusion of disabled people in the workforce, though hardly anyone is willing to admit it. The ADA is even being invoked as a reason to take down free online coursework, if you can believe it.

What a tragedy.

Government Is the Enemy of the Disabled

Government had become the ultimate “ableist” institution.But actually, none of this should surprise us. History’s greatest gains for the disabled community came in the age of laissez faire in the 19th century, when private philanthropy invented Braille and new schools and accommodations for the disabled were established. There was a huge growth in global cooperation to bring new dignity to their lives. Philanthropists made this a cause. Governments didn’t participate.

But late in the 19th century, a wicked new ideology came along that essentially plotted the extermination of the disabled. It was called eugenics. Science at the time was said to demonstrate that these people needed to be excluded, segregated, prevented from propagating their kind, and finally exterminated. It was a war on the weak and it lasted for decades, in every state at every level of policy. The minimum wage – which established a high bar for getting into the professional workforce – was part of the exterminationist plot.

Government had become the ultimate “ableist” institution, just as it had become the primary practitioner of racism and misogyny. All this malice was baked into the law and promoted at the highest levels of academia and government. (It still is: try being disabled and navigating an airport security line, much less getting arrested.)

The thinking had already begun to change by the late 1930s, thanks in part to the realization that the president of the US himself had a polio-related disability. So the power of government turned from exterminating to “helping.” But actually it didn’t help at all. More power, more money, more regulation, more mandates only served to further the eugenics cause. All the “good intentions” in the world wouldn’t change the outcome.

The Sub-Minimum Wage

wheelchair-1589476If you are disabled now, it it extremely difficult to get a job. To employ you at any wage will cost a business far more than a fully abled employee. And business darn sure can’t have disabled people volunteer to work without pay, for that is said to be exploitation. However, there is still one saving grace in the law. Business is permitted to pay a subminimum wage today. It takes paperwork and it’s not easy but it can be done.

Along comes Hillary Clinton, crazy ideology in hand, to get rid of that too. She has called it “a vestige from an ugly, ignorant past” and vows to mandate higher wages for everyone. And that is that: justice with the stroke of a pen.

Except that it is cruel and terrible and will throw more disabled people out of work. And if she wants to talk about “an ugly, ignorant past,” she should have a look at the history of eugenics that her beloved government (and her beloved progressive movement) tried to bring about just 100 years ago. Here we find the real effect of government power on the weak.

For the sake of justice and morality, government needs to get completely out of the disability business. Too many lives are at stake. Human dignity is at stake. Please just stop “helping” these blessed souls.


This report prepared by Jeffrey Tucker for Foundation for Economic Education.