The handicaps of the Americans With Disabilities Act

Second, it is just indefensible to claim that the supposed discrimination against the disabled “costs the United States billions” of dollars. Any potential profit opportunities of that magnitude would never go unnoticed in a market economy. The position of the ADA defenders is that businesses are so systematically ignorant that they must be forced to tap this market by nonstop public coercion. If these changes were cost justified, they would have been voluntarily incorporated long ago, without government prodding. Instead, we see a system in which virtually all new architectural projects in the United States have to be approved by government actors before they are allowed to go forward.

If you have the slightest familiarity with the industry, you know that these modifications do not come cheap. The modifications that are inexpensive will be implemented anyway. The modifications that aren’t include specialized ramps, bathrooms, and elevators that hog space that is better put to other purposes. Yet at no point is anyone in the government required to prepare a cost-benefit analysis to explain the need to mandate the installation of all sorts of chairlifts that are never used.

To this day, I recall an incident that occurred years ago at the University of Chicago. The occasion was the dedication of the new law school clinic building. A woman attendee with a broken leg was seated in a wheelchair when our group came to a set of steps next to which was a chairlift that no one had the key to and which no one knew how to operate. The solution was easy enough. Three or four of us picked up the woman in her wheelchair and carried her down the steps.

It is easy to protest that no one in a wheelchair should be dependent on the grace and kindness of other individuals. But the opposite is true: In a good civil society, it is exactly that kind of conduct that allows for inexpensive labor to substitute for highly impracticable and unsightly capital “improvements” that do little or no good to anyone. Indeed, the high cost of retrofitting existing buildings routinely leads their owners to postpone their renovations, with resulting inconveniences to future users, to the construction, and to other workers who could have profited from the earlier work. Ironically, in a world without the ADA, the new premises would on average be friendlier to disabled persons than the existing structures. Unfortunately, those hidden losses are not taken into account in setting ADA compliance rules.

This attack on the ADA should not be read as a clarion call to remove all ramps and lifts from airports and hospitals. Clearly, cost-benefit ratios change dramatically with context, so much so that sensible institutions install these devices when the anticipated high level of use justifies the capital expenditures. It is just a canard to think that without the ADA, the investment in disability access would fall to zero or even close to that.

Indeed, the only socially correct assessment of the ADA has to ask this question: Are the huge costs of statutory enforcement justified by the modest social gains, if any, that follow from nationwide compliance with these mandates? Those gains can be achieved at much lower costs, which for the most part would produce more sensible innovations. In all likelihood, that answer is in the negative once we abandon the improbable assumption that the strong social pressures that forced passage of the ADA would turn silent in the event of its repeal. Given the visibility and emotions surrounding the issue, that just won’t happen.