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FREAK-TV: Is the Law of Unintended Consequences the Strongest Law Around?


The Americans with Disabilities Act was considered landmark legislation. Here’s a summary of the law from the Department of Justice Web site:

The Americans with Disabilities Act gives civil rights protections to individuals with disabilities similar to those provided to individuals on the basis of race, color, sex, national origin, age, and religion. It guarantees equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in public accommodations, employment, transportation, State and local government services, and telecommunications.

How much did the A.D.A. actually improve the lot of America’s disabled workers? That’s the question posed in our most recent video quiz. You may want to pause the video before the answer is revealed and take a look at this paper by Daron Acemoglu and Joshua Angrist.


For those who may be hearing impaired or otherwise unable to hear the audio, below is a transcript:

Hi, I’m Stephen Dubner. In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, or A.D.A., which was meant to strengthen the rights of workers with physical or mental handicaps.

How did this legislation affect such workers? Here are four guesses:

(a) Their employment levels rose 30 percent.
(b) Their employment rose 15 percent.
(c) Their employment levels were unchanged. Or
(d) Disabled workers were actually hired less often than before.

The correct answer is (d).

After the A.D.A. went into effect, there was actually a sharp drop in employment among disabled workers, apparently because employers, now concerned that they wouldn’t be able to discipline or fire incompetent workers who happened to be disabled, simply chose to not hire disabled workers in the first place.

The A.D.A. was a powerful law that became a classic example of an even more powerful one — the law of unintended consequences.