Unforeseen Consequences: the Americans with Disabilities Act

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In 1990, Congress granted people with disabilities the same federal protections against employment discrimination that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had provided on the basis of sex and race. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also added a second level of support: employers must find ways to help the disabled perform their jobs.

This was watershed legislation that has made life easier for millions of workers by requiring employers to provide assistive devices or otherwise accommodate their disabilities. The law is also the basis of a growing number of federal lawsuits against employers to provide remedies if they’ve been discriminated against.

But research that first started appearing right after the ADA passed has shown that employers cut back on hiring people with disabilities when faced with the threat of lawsuits or the requirements for special work schedules or equipment to modify work spaces.

A new study adds another layer of evidence showing this is happening.

Timothy Moore at Purdue University made a national comparison of states that, prior to the ADA, already had similar laws on the books with other states where the law for the first time imposed tough new standards on employers. In the states affected by the new requirements, applications to Social Security increased for disability benefits, which people can turn to when they are unable to find a job.

After the federal law went into effect, applications rose more than 6 percent in the majority of states that previously had limited protections or – in the case of Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri – no protections at all.

The 16 states that already had their own laws very similar to or tougher than the ADA were largely unaffected.

In a second analysis that was also telling, Moore split the affected states into two groups: the three states that had no protections prior to the ADA and the states that had antidiscrimination statutes but did not require workplace accommodations. The ADA pushed up disability applications more in the states without any past protections. The costs perceived by employers in these states – Mississippi, Alabama, and Missouri – of complying with the federal law were apparently very high.

Despite the rise in applications in the affected states, the number of people who were actually granted disability benefits did not increase.

However, Moore said the contention that the ADA increased applications and reduced employment seems valid.

To read this study by Timothy Moore, see “The Effect of the Americans with Disabilities Act on Social Security Disability Insurance.”

The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.  The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College.  Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report.  Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.

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