Has the Americans with Disabilities Act made a difference?

As one who has been “quote/unquote” handicapped for periods of time due to several bouts with bone cancer, I wanted to take a look at how employers and those who consider themselves disabled have evolved over the almost 30 years since the ADA was legislated. As I’ve mentioned before the social business cycles ebb and flow, and governments legislate according to public outcry.

I have been both an entrepreneurial employer as well as a person with physical difficulties looking for employment. It can be tough on both sides. As with many government initiatives, the ADA had a place in the workforce as those with disabilities both physical and mental needed access and help so they too could partake in attempting to achieve the American dream.

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The ADA was a civil rights law that improved physical access to schools, public spaces and other buildings, while also guaranteeing legal protections, noted Philip Kahn-Pauli, the policy and practices director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit that works to advance opportunities for people with disabilities.

If you will remember our founding fathers had three basic principles upon which our nation was founded. To provide infrastructure so the nation can grow; to protect its citizens and maintain sovereignty at its borders; and to take care of those who are unable to take care of themselves. That’s it.

Milton Friedman used these three principles in his classic work Free to Choose, which chronicled a society which deviates from the free hand of Adam Smith into one where regulation is omnipresent. To give you an example, Friedman suggested that doctors need not be certified or licensed, because at some point (hopefully sooner than later) the public would uncover the person’s inability to do the job, and thus word would spread and the free market would put the illegitimate doctor out of business. Extreme scenario but you get the point.

Circling back to the present, the ADA has been abused to the point of no return. Providing brail and wheelchair ramps for those of true need has turned into a model of litigation against business for those who slip and fall in Walmart to sue for damages. The following chart depicts the growth in litigation against employers under the ADA.

As one would anticipate, there are two sides to this story. The ADA has served as a battleground for competing ideologies. Some critics of the Act see it as threatening employment-at-will and making the U.S. labor market more like Europe’s. ADA proponents see the Act as creating a more inclusive labor market, without increasing employer costs or reducing overall employment.

I think most academicians are missing the point in trying to understand the microeconomic effects of the ADA. It truly is the rise in senseless litigation that is taking its toll on businesses, particularly small and medium-sized. Corporations will drag on litigation for years and spend thousands of dollars to make sure you don’t collect by them not allowing you to bring your companion dog to the company cafeteria. I’m not a big fan of dog hair in my meatloaf special.

About John Thomas

John Patrick Thomas is a four-time cancer survivor who lives with his family in South Florida. John attended Gettysburg College and The American University before embarking on an entrepreneurial career on Wall Street. He turned to the teaching profession after his life-threatening bout with bone cancer. John has recently written a #1 Amazon Cancer Bestselling book entitled, “A Call to Faith, the Journey of a Cancer Survivor.” He has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal, The Washington Post, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center publications, and was featured in new DayStar network series, “Impact with Pastor Dave.” He has traveled as a missionary and may be one of the few people that tell you cancer was the best thing to ever happen to him. You’ll have to ask him why.


  1. So, Mr. Thomas, has the ADA made a difference? The only difference you cite is the large rise in senseless litigation that is costing businesses lots of money. So, by that measure, do you conclude that the ADA is a failure?

  2. Please point me to the part of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or any other contemporary 18th-Century writings by the Founders where your first and third “basic principles” can be found described as proper functions of government.

    • John Patrick Thomas

      Adam Smith: “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” published in 1759. “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,”published in 1776. Smith outlined three important government functions: national defense, administration of justice (law and order), and the provision of certain public goods (e.g., transportation infrastructure and basic and applied education). Clearly, government has grown beyond the bounds of these simple duties.

      Our Founding Fathers were some of his earliest readers. In 1783, James Madison nominated “Wealth of Nations” to be one of the books in the proposed congressional library. Two years later, Monroe wrote to Thomas Jefferson about integrating Smith’s new idea that “the doctrine of the balance of trade is a chimera.”

      Just a few of many examples.