Tony Coelho’s Letter to 20/20

July 31, 1996

Mr. Victor Neufeld
Executive Producer
147 Columbus Avenue, Tenth Floor
New York, New York 10023

Dear Mr. Neufeld:

Head shot of Tony CoelhoJohn Stossel’s recent 20/20 effort, “Getting in on the Act” was one of the most biased stories I have seen since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed six years ago. After the initial statement that “some people have definitely benefited” from the ADA, I heard neither balance nor objectivity. What I heard were unsubstantiated opinions and inaccurate statements. As the original author of the ADA, I believe I can speak authoritatively on the subject. (In fact, my staff offered their expertise several times, while this piece was in production. It is unfortunate that 20/20 chose not to accept that offer.)

Mr. Stossel began the segment by criticizing what he evidently considered to be frivolous lawsuits filed under the ADA. The boundaries of all new laws are tested in the courts. That is our system, and the price all of us pay for the freedom to vindicate our civil rights in a court of law.

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Mr. Stossel implied that thousands of suits have been filed under the ADA. While thousands of complaints have been filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as of December 31, 1995, the EEOC had filed only 131 lawsuits on behalf of individuals for ADA violations. In fact, according to a U.S. Department of Justice survey of the federal courts, only 630 lawsuits had been filed in court under the entire law as of January 1996.

Mr. Stossel claimed that the ADA is such a complex law “employers” cannot understand it, do not support it, and will not hire individuals with disabilities for fear that such individuals cannot be fired without triggering lawsuits. Yet, not one employer was actually interviewed on the 20/20 segment. Moreover, many respected surveys have documented employers’ support of both the ADA and the employment of people with disabilities. A July 1995 Louis Harris and Associates survey of senior corporate executives found that 70 percent of the executives surveyed support the ADA and do not favor weakening the law in any way, and 89 percent support policies to increase the number of people with disabilities in their companies. A January 1995 Mason-Dixon poll of Florida businesses reported that 87 percent of those businesses that hired persons with disabilities would encourage other employers to do likewise. An October 1995 Global Strategy Group survey of Fortune 5000 companies found that 73 percent of the top growth industries across the United States are hiring people with disabilities. Contrary to John Stossel’s and Julie Janofsky’s unsubstantiated assertions, the majority of employers support the ADA and the hiring of people with disabilities.

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For those who need information or advice on ADA compliance, there are many free federal, state and local resources. One of these is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), a toll-free service of the President’s Committee, which has been used by more than 60,000 people per year via telephone and more than 56,000 people per month via the Internet. The particular job accommodation Mr. Stossel criticized in his segment included extended sick leave and psychotherapy treatments under the employer’s health plan. If the employer pays premiums to a health insurance provider, then the employer is paying the direct costs of the psychotherapy treatment any more than the employer is paying the direct costs of a non-disabled person’s use of health insurance benefits. Your portrayal of this situation was inaccurate and misleading.

Finally, Mr. Stossel said that the ADA “has not helped people find jobs.” Again, I beg to differ – and the U.S. Census Bureau would back me up. In a 1994 survey, the Census Bureau determined that the employment rate of people with severe disabilities had increased since the passage of the ADA from 23.3 percent to 26.1 percent. That means that approximately 800,000 more severely disabled individuals were working in 1994 than in 1991. The Washington Post and other publications have reported this accurately as opposed to your completely inaccurate presentation.

The ADA is an important and long overdue civil right law for the 49 million individuals with disabilities in our country. We with disabilities want to work and pay taxes, instead of costing the U.S. more than $200 billion annually in public subsidies. We want to earn money and patronize businesses, and we will use our $188 billion in discretionary income to benefit those businesses that make us feel welcome. We will continue to fight for jobs, equality, and justice despite biased and unfair stories like those of Mr. Stossel. And, we will let your advertisers know our concerns.

The ADA has removed numerous barriers that had kept us out of the work force, but stories like “Getting in on the Act,” put more barriers in our way.


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Tony Coelho

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