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July 28, 2015

Has the Americans With Disabilities Act Actually Been a Failure?


Sunday, July 26, marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, signed in 1990 by George H.W. Bush. And many Americans are celebrating the law’s anniversary by praising it as a huge success. But was it?
Disabled Americans certainly do have much greater access to workplaces, buildings and transportation. So while the ADA was costly to implement, especially for small businesses, the law seems to have accomplished at least that part of its mission.
But given that increased access, along with anti-discrimination provisions, new technologies that allow disabled Americans to perform many tasks they couldn't in the past, more telecommuting, and health care improvements, shouldn't the number of people receiving disability benefits have declined instead of increasingly dramatically?
In the 20 years between 1970 (the earliest data from the Social Security Administration) and 1990, the number of Americans on Social Security disability income increased from 2.67 million to 4.27 million--a net increase of 1.6 million.

However, over the next 25 years--that is, after the passage of the ADA--Americans receiving disability income increased to 10.92 million. That's an increase of 6.65 million Americans. In other words, the number of Americans receiving disability payments grew four times faster in the last 25 years, when the ADA was supposed to be making it easier for disabled Americans to find a job and keep it, than in the 20 years before the law.
Shouldn't the number of Americans on disability have gone down, or at least stayed flat, instead of growing faster?
Even if the ADA broadened the definition of "disabled," it would seem that many of those individuals could still find work--if they wanted to.
The question is important because the Social Security trustees just released their latest report on the financial condition of Social Security and Medicare. And the disability trust fund is slated to run out of money next year.
As the Wall Street Journal observes, "The [trustees'] report also offered the latest warning that the Social Security disability-insurance program will exhaust its reserves late next year, which would trigger a 19% cut in benefit payments."
There have been many stories over the years about how many nondisabled people are gaming the system to receive benefits. IPI recently proposed one way to address that problem.
With respect to the ADA, we are certainly glad that it has improved the lives of millions of disabled Americans. But it also highlights the problems in the government program that provides disability benefits.


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