When compassion goes bad

Doug French

"I can't believe that even the Republicans don't get what a burden ADA imposes on us," my real estate developer friend told me.

Drive by any real estate development and you'll see the consequences of this feel-good legislation: fancy but unused ramps, sturdy railings and dozens of empty parking spaces painted with bright blue boxes and white wheelchair symbols.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law 18 years ago this summer with bipartisan support that included then-President George H.W. Bush and Republican stalwarts Robert Dole and Newt Gingrich. Dole even called the ADA one of his three proudest accomplishments while serving in the Senate.

Though ADA was inspired by the desire to protect disabled Americans from hiring discrimination and ensure access to public buildings, prolific author Greg Perry writes that, "you have to look long and hard to find where these citizens had crutches kicked out from under their arms before the ADA was implemented. People didn't push wheelchair-bound crippled people into traffic. It took the ADA to create discrimination against the handicapped in America."

So instead of property owners being allowed to show compassion for their handicapped customers, the ham-hand of government forces compliance by taking a portion of commercial properties and mandating that a certain number of parking spaces near a front door be reserved for the handicapped. And these can't just be any old parking spaces. These handicapped spaces must measure at least eight-feet wide, be designated with the international wheelchair symbol and be van-accessible. Vertical clearance, when driving into or out of the space, must be at least 98 inches.

Thus, on any 100-plus-degree Vegas afternoon, it doesn't matter that all the non-handicapped spaces may be taken, while a dozen of these extra-wide spaces lie fallow. Federal law prohibits the un-handicapped from potentially denying one of the three million handicapped people in America a place to park.

The government contends that 43 million people (or almost 15 percent of the population) are disabled. But as the Cato Institute's Edward L. Hudgins explains, it's less than 10 percent of that number: 400,000 Americans are blind, 720,000 use wheelchairs, and 1.7 million are deaf, for a total of just under three million disabled Americans. "In order to get to 43 million," Hudgins writes, "the act assumed that everyone over 65 years old, 31 million at the time the act passed, was disabled."

To provide such "equal" access to one percent of the population, the government provides a building code handbook for builders and developers. One hundred pages long, it lists the requirements for a thousand building codes, dictating everything from the space required between a wall and a toilet to the height of indoor carpet. "From the time I buy property to the day I get the C of O (Certificate of Occupancy)," the long-time Las Vegas developer explains, "ADA is my main concern to determine if a project will be economic or not."

Of course, the government doesn't care what its rules and regulations cost. In fact ADA contradicts itself. "It is illegal to segregate people with disabilities in one area by designating it as an accessible area to be used only by people with disabilities," according to an ADA brochure written for business owners. But, what do the big, wide, special parking places do? Virtually every aspect of the ADA segregates people with disabilities. "The very specifications of the ADA violate its own statement against segregation," writes Greg Perry (who happens to be disabled). "Nobody cares."

People should care. The costs of ADA go well beyond the known billions of dollars. The law costs jobs and damages the economy.

In his paper, "The Impacts of the Americans with Disabilities Act on the Entry and Exit of Retail Firms," Pepperdine University's James E. Prieger concludes: "The empirical results imply that the ADA indeed decreased the number of retail firms. There were fewer retail firms after the ADA was passed, and the drop was larger in states in which the ADA was more of a legal innovation, and in states that had more disabled people, more ADA-related lawsuits, and more ADA-related labor complaints."

President George Bush claimed a few years ago that the ADA has made our "country a fairer society, more considerate and welcoming to all our citizens." In truth, however, the act is just another government encroachment on property rights that makes us all worse off – including the disabled.

Doug French is a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.