Heritage Foundation: Congress and The Disabled -- More Harm Than Help

Do you have less than perfect health? Need contact lenses or eye glasses? Under legislation before Congress, the government would consider you disabled.

It sounds ridiculous. It is. But that rarely stops Congress. The proposed ADA Restoration Act has powerful supporters on Capitol Hill, including the majority leader of the House of Representatives, and it could easily become law.

The bill’s stated purpose is to strengthen protections for disabled Americans provided by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). Unfortunately it would go far beyond this goal, classifying virtually every American as disabled and weakening the protections the government provides the truly disabled.

Congress passed the Americans with Disability Act in 1990 with the noble goal of ensuring that disabled Americans could participate in public life. The Act prohibits discriminating against the disabled, and it requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers.

Intending to help the truly handicapped, Congress defined the disabled as those with “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” The act also exempts individuals who take corrective measures that mitigate their impairment, such as prescription lenses for a nearsighted employee.

The ADA has had mixed success. It has helped many disabled workers integrate into the workforce. Unfortunately, because it made employing disabled workers expensive and laying them off difficult, the act has discouraged businesses from hiring handicapped employees in the first place. Studies show that the well-intentioned ADA has actually reduced the number of disabled Americans with jobs.

Now many members of Congress want to expand the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act to cover almost every American. The ADA Restoration Act would remove the phrase “that substantially limits one or more major life activities” from the legal definition of disability. Anyone with any physical or mental impairment, no matter how minor, would become legally disabled.

Take your pick: Heartburn. Stress. Insomnia. Occasional shortness of breath. Headaches. Tennis elbow. Heck, the flu, for that matter. If the ADA Restoration Act becomes law the government would consider every American with imperfect health — which means almost every American — disabled.

The bill even specifies that if you aren’t suffering from your impairment now, you are nonetheless disabled. It doesn’t matter if you can take steps to mitigate your disability, such as taking medication to reduce your cholesterol level. Under this act, you are still disabled.

Unfortunately, this bill is more than absurd. The ADA Restoration Act would actually undermine the protections afforded to genuinely handicapped Americans.

The original Americans with Disabilities Act was designed to put qualified but disabled workers on a level playing field with everyone else. However, society doesn’t have unlimited resources to accommodate everyone who wants assistance. Expanding the concept of disability to cover everyone will divert resources from those who truly need and deserve assistance.

The ADA, sensibly, only requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. The government doesn’t require businesses to go bankrupt if they cannot accommodate the needs every disabled employee. If every worker qualifies for job reassignments to accommodate their “disability,” then fewer truly disabled individuals will be able to obtain job reassignment as a reasonable accommodation.

The law would not even allow employers to give higher priority to individuals with more pressing disabilities. Instead employers would have to assign accommodations on a first-come, first-served basis, with no regard to the severity of the disabilities.

Consider a manufacturer with two positions on the assembly line where workers can perform their job while sitting down. If one employee claimed disability because of a sore knee, and another because of a sprained ankle, they could insist on those positions as reasonable accommodation to their disability.

If a paraplegic then applied to work, the employer could not legally move one of those employees to a position that required standing, making room for the new applicant. Instead he would have to turn the genuinely handicapped worker away because there would no longer be any reasonable accommodation possible.

If every new hire is legally disabled, it becomes next to impossible to prove that a genuinely disabled worker was discriminated against. Any company could simply point out that it hired a different disabled worker who it also could not discriminate against.

When everyone is special, no one is. Calling all workers disabled once again tilts the playing field against those with genuine handicaps. Washington is filled with absurd ideas, but the ADA Restoration Act goes beyond absurd — to harming the very individuals it’s intended to help.

James Sherk is the Bradley fellow in labor policy at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).