Saturday, February 21, 2009

Review of Greg Perry's "Disabling America"

Below is a review I wrote recently for Greg Perry's "Disabling America," a libertarian-ish critique of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In it, Perry takes the position that, like much other recent legislatkkion made on behalf of minorities, the ADA goes beyond putting the disabled on equal ground as the non-disabled, but makes them a quite privileged group by doling out entitlements galore.

As a special educator, I encounter disability law every day (IDEA), and see that while it was put in place with intent to help disabled students recieve a quality education, it just as often makes and keeps kids disabled. It does these things by granting "accomodatiosn" to children who may be doing nothing more than performing below expectations ("James is struggling in math. He must be learning disabled. Jane has trouble paying attention to the teachers' lecture. She must have ADHD.")

My real beef with IDEA is that many of the "accommodations" it gives do little more than reward kids for failure by expecting less and less from them the worse they do. I have been in many IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meetings where we discussed reducing the amount of work expected of x because x is failing certain classes. Thus, the less he does, the less he learns, the less he will be expected to learn in the future!

Enough! I offer you this review in hopes that you will read Greg Perry's timely book.

Are Some More Equal Than Others? (a special educator's take)

The Americans With Disabilities Act is a sacred cow. Rarely do I hear anyone publicly say anything against it, and generally those who would like to (myself included) run the risk of being considered anti-disabled (or maybe "disabledphobic?"). This is what makes Greg Perry and his book such an asset. Perry, born with one leg and three fingers, has written a smashing critique of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and as a disabled man, probably has more latitude to do so than most of us "normals."

From the outset, I will warn you that this book is highly anecdotal and, to my mind, this is no flaw (as some will allege). We hear stories of cases involving employees who "discover" a disability (like alcohol addiciton, "chronic" back pain, or depression), so that they might sue the pants off their employers. We hear stories of disabled lawyers who sue hundreds of stores at a time (that they have been to all of the stores is often in question).

These, and other, stories will outrage, and this is by design. The subtitle of the book is "the unintended consequences of the government protection of the handicapped," and this is what Perry shows. The ADA, like other government legislation such as the USA PATRIOT act, and No Child Left Behind, doubtless started with good intentions. But like these other Acts, the ADA is rife for abuse and ends up hurting those it intends to help. As Perry notes, the ADA is rife with abuse in large part because the vagueness of what constitutes a disability; everything from drug addiction to affliction with the AIDS virus to situational depression can be called a disability under ADA, and once one is "disabled," the ADA gives wide latitude to sue and make cumbersome demands on everyone from one's employer to one's favorite mom-and-pop store. And why is the ADA counterproductive? It makes people afraid to hire and deal with disabled people by seeing them not as persons but potential liabilities and lawsuits. (It also, like affirmative action, sends people the message that an entire group of people is so bad off that they couldn't make it without hefty government assistance.)

Am a special educator, I particularly enjoyed the chapter on the ADA in education (which is actually governed by a sister law, IDEA). IDEA mandates that every disabled child - and the term is flexible enough to include practically anyone performing below grade level - be provided with an Individualized Education Plan and "accommodations" that often act as wheelchair used by a child who needs to learn to walk; in other words, much of the "help" given to students with disabilities - use of a calculator on all math work, being read to (even in high school) - do more to ensure that a child will stay disabled than learn to overcome their disability. I do not have anywhere near the malice that Perry does for IDEA - and think that in some cases, the law does some good when used well - but the chapter is eye-opening for those who've never thought much on the subject.

My biggest criticism is that Perry's book is highly emotionally charged and rhetorical. There are also times when Perry argues more out of emotion than thought. (He suggests, for instance, that most stores would become "handicapped accessible" on their own, but does not explain why, if this is so, the ADA was ever felt necessary. Nor does he see that many stores simply wouldn't bother to go through the expense in areas where, like most places, the disabled are a small demographic). The book is also quite repetitive, and I found myself skimming, rather than reading, the last two chapters. As a book designed to incense a lay audience, this book is heavy on rhetoric and anecdote, and light on statistics.

Overall, though, Perry's arguments will hold much sway with those of a conservative/libertarian bent. The ADA makes "some more equal than others" by singling some out for very special treatment while leaving others with the expense (handicapped parking seems always to be at the front of the store; the rest of us must park further away, as one small example).

Want to see a sacred cow butchered? Read Disabling America (at your own risk).


  1. I saw an episode of King of the Hill where the school administration was trying to raise their test scores by bumping the average students into the special ed program, and to entice them to test poorly they let them go on a special reward field trip that was supposed to be just for the honors students.

    It seems like the disability acts do more harm than good, but I'm curious how much good they do in your case.

  2. Thanks Kevin, that is a very fair review. I appreciate it! - Greg Perry