Won’t Somebody Think of the Round Doorknobs? Penn & Teller on Accessibility Legislation

Courtesy of Anna in her post Let’s Bust Some Myths: People with disabilities just want to sue the world into compliance, I found this video – the lowlights of Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit!” show on the Americans With Disabilities Act.

I thought maybe we could play bingo with the ableist tropes in the video. There’s no card (that I can find) yet for generic ableism bingo, only more specialised ones for autism and invisible illness. Who’d like to start? For bonus points, we could play “Fibs about the ADA”, too.

[A man using axillary crutches is seen getting into a car. It appears to be an unmodified car, and he is not using any aids other than crutches.]

Penn in voiceover : Greg Perry is America’s most prolific author of computer books. He hates the ADA.

[Greg Perry, dressed in a collared shirt and suit jacket, is sitting in a book-lined study.]

I have found absolutely nothing about the Americans with Disabilities Act that I like. [smiles]

Penn in voiceover: But there is something this guy would like the Federal government to do for him.

Perry: I want the government to get out of my way and leave me alone. Because I more easily trip over things that get in my way.

[Perry is now seen standing on a street verge, leaning on his crutches.]

Perry: Greg Perry. Author. Handicapped man. Born with three fingers and one leg.

Perry in voiceover, cutting back to the study: There were people kicking crutches out from under people before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law…

[Perry is walking along a pavement. He approaches a door. A man appears from out of frame.]

Man: Can I get that for you? [reaches for door.]

Perry: Thankyou, I appreciate that. [goes through door as man opens it for him]

Perry in voiceover: It took the Americans with Disabilities Act to harm the handicapped.

Penn in voiceover: Greg Perry is against the ADA, In fact, he even wrote a book, Disabling America: The Unintended Consequences of the Government’s Protection of the Handicapped.

[Another shot of Greg walking along with crutches cuts to the book cover. It has a standardised International wheelchair disability symbol on the front.]

Perry: I am thrilled that I was born long before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law in 1990. Because if I had been born after the law had been signed, I would be a loser today. I wouldn’t be the success that some people consider me to be.

[Shot of Perry typing on a laptop. His hand atypicalities are clearly visible.]

Penn: With more than 75 titles to his name, Greg Perry is the most prolific author of computer books in the world. He offered us his book about – “Linux?” – but, you know.

Perry: I would be a loser because I know myself, and I know that as a teenager, I would have done anything to get out of work, to take extra money, to get on the government dole. Without this law, the truly handicapped would be socially, morally, and financially better off than they are today.

[Shot of two women approaching a shopping centre. A Staples store in in the background. Cut to ]

Hudgins [in a study]: The ADA defines a disability as a…a…a…an impairment of a major life function. Well. What is an impairment of a major life function?

Hudgins [sitting outside a building]: I’m Doctor Edward Hudgins, Cato Institute Adjunct Scholar and Executive Director of the Objectivist Center.

Hudgins [back inside a study]: Today in America, if you take all of the people who are legally blind, legally deaf, and in wheelchairs or with serious mobility problems, you’re talking about maybe four or five million people.

[visual of a van with a ramp leading into it. The van is parked in an accessible parking space. A woman in a powerchair drives up the ramp into the van.]

Penn in voiceover: That’s a pretty small number. And yet the ADA’s own website says there are upwards of fifty million people in the US with a disability. That clearly can’t be the case.

Hudgins: That means like – what, one in six? – and that’s where the problem comes, is now you’ve created a whole government industry to deal with these situations. And it’s going to be very costly, and it’s going to be disingenuous to the people who have real problems, such as in wheelchairs or legally blind.

[Visual of Perry crutching along through a carpark, smirking. He seems to smirk a lot.]

Penn: Let’s find out Greg Perry’s take on handicapped parking.

[Perry goes over to an empty accessible parking space, with a kerb cut next to it. There are multiple other empty spaces in the carpark. The carpark appears to serve a strip mall with various businesses.]

Perry: What we have here is something that you will find all over America, millions of times. And that is an empty wheelchair parking space. It is ok if this business wants to have a wheelchair parking space. That’s great. But to have a gun put to their heads to put this here when it’s not needed? That’s the bad thing.

[Visual of several empty accessible parking spaces. Many of the regular parking spaces in view are empty also.]

Penn: The ADA says all businesses must have designated handicapped parking. There’s no room for compassion. It’s all mandated. The larger your store, the more spaces you are required to have.

Hudgins: The real fundamental issue here that gets lost in the whole discussion of the ADA is private property. And the freedom of individuals to use their property as they see fit.

[Visual of Perry continuing to stand morosely in the first accessible parking space, staring at the wheelchair symbol, and shaking his head glumly.]

Penn: When you ask Greg Perry, he’ll say big and small businesses alike will make accommodations for the handicapped on their own, without government mandates, because it’s good for business.

[Perry approaches a business doorway. Inexplicably, someone who just happens to be coming out of the door at the same time says “Are you going in here?” and opens the door for him. Perry says “Why yes! Thank you so much”, and proceeeds through.]

Perry: I want Wal-Mart to do whatever they want to do to keep me as a customer. But if they don’t, someone next door to Wal-Mart will want to do that. They will take my money.

[A new visual of a carpark with several empty spaces, including one accessible space.]

Penn: Parking isn’t the only thing the ADA guarantees the handicapped. [visual of document; montage of passages from the document] This is a copy of the official ADA Standards for Accessible Design. It’s a hundred pages of dense legalese that dictates a thousand building codes including the distance of toilet can be from a wall, the width of a handicapped parking space, the height of indoor carpet, and even the style of knob on your front door.

[Perry points to a swing-handle type doorknob.]

Perry: Look at this! And then over here, here’s another one, [he proceeds down a hallway], and down here, is yet another one! All the way down the line.

[Closeup of OUTRAGEOUSLY OFFENSIVE swing-handle door.]

Perry: What most people don’t realise is that round doorknobs are illegal in the United States of America. Most people don’t know that. This is just crazy!

Penn: Oh no. That’s not crazy. You’re not even in crazy county.

[Perry goes to his car and drives.]

Penn: You want blazing can’t-look-at-it-directly-because-your-face-will-crack crazy?

[Visual of a drive-up ATM.]

Penn: Your drive-up ATMs also have to have instructions – in Braille.

Perry [parked at the ATM]: I guess you have to have a Braille steering wheel to get here, which I don’t have. But that seems to make about as much sense as the Braille on the drive-up ATM.

Peters [standing on a street]: What happened was, around the Thanksgiving holiday in 2005, a disabled attorney sent 67 letters to local businesses, which was almost every business in the town. And he alleged that he had encountered problems when he came here for a weekend getaway. David Warren Peters, I’m an attorney with Lawyers Against Lawsuit Abuse. He demanded $200 000. Uh, he demanded about $2250 from each tenant and $4000 from each landlord.

[Visual of letter of demand]

Peters: He structured it so that his demands went up day by day. That every day they waited to agree to them, that they would have to pay more.

Business owner in what seems to be a gift/jewellery shop: They demanded that people respond within two days. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with compliance.

Peters: A lot of businesses were just scared out of their wits.

[Visual of random working at a computer]

Hudgins: When the ADA was passed, only about 30% of people with a disability were in the workforce. Today, that really hasn’t changed, if anything, it’s gone down a little bit.

Perry: And I say, if it hasn’t changed at all, throw the law out! It hasn’t done any good, but it’s done a lot of harm. People are afraid to hire the handicapped these days. That wasn’t true before the ADA was signed into law. People are afraid, because they call us “walking lawsuits”. I happen to call us “rolling lawsuits” at times, but we are “walking lawsuits”.

[random computer worker guy walks down a corridor, using a cane]

Hudgins: The Americans with Disabilities Act discourages employers to hire people with disabilities because those people with disabilities have a special standing before the court, a special law under which they can sue, and so – what’s the incentive to hire a person with a disability? You think you’re going to get sued!

Perry: The ADA is not a civil rights issue because we’re all different. Everyone is different. You’ve got capabilities I don’t have, and I’ve got capabilities that you don’t have, and that’s always going to be the case. Nothing the government does can make me equal to you in any way. It teaches people they don’t have to help others who need help. That’s where the big harm occurs. [More visuals of Perry wandering around.] Coercion never produces compassion. But this law, they say, will produce a more compassionate America. I say it does exactly the opposite of its intent.

[Perry wanders up to a door. A child who happens to be hanging around opens it for him. He says smarmily, “Well thankyou! I appreciate that.”]

[Back to the studio. A muscled guy in a tanktop pop wheelies on a manual wheelchair in the background. It occurs to me that I think this is the first person to be visibly of colour in the entire video. Music plays. Penn and Teller watch wheelie guy.]

Penn: Any time you say ‘There oughtta be a law’, there probably oughtn’t to be. Every law takes away some of our freedoms. I lose my freedom to murder you [motions to Teller], you lose your freedom to murder me, that’s worth the tradeoff. But using the law to bludgeon people into being nicer? That’s bullshit. Respecting and helping the disabled is the right thing to do. Hold open a door! If you can, park and walk a little distance to the store! Celebrate it! We’re all a little different, and we can all help each other out.

[Admires wheelie guy.]

Penn: Man. I wish I could do that.

Categories: social justice

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18 replies

  1. When did Greg Perry become king of the disabled?

  2. I only got halfway through. It basically sounds like they don’t have any actual refutation, but rather can’t stand the idea of anything that challenges the white male individualist myth. “Government get out of my way!” “Poor businesses with guns to their heads to do something that’s not necessary!” Whatever.
    I wouldn’t BE employed without the ADA – period. Go ahead, tell me about how it’s all about being lazy and trying to keep from having to work. Come on, try.

  3. Oh dear. US Libertarianism strikes again. “I’m young, wealthy, white, male, and educated, so obviously my experience of life is the default and nobody has anything different” as the basis for all thinking. The funny noise you’re hearing is my teeth grating as I try to keep a grip on my temper. It annoyed me when Robert A Heinlein handed it to his characters as a basis for thinking, and it still annoys me even when I hear it from someone who doesn’t hold the whole set of “male, white, cis, TAB, Christian, upper-middle-class, educated, USAlien, heterosexual, partnered” privileges, because it’s based on denying that there is *any* other type of life to be lived. Great, so Greg Perry doesn’t need a wheelchair to get in and out of places, he doesn’t need his car modified to be able to drive it, he’s figured out ways to get around his physical differences. That’s terrific for him. I’m glad he isn’t having too many problems, and he’s comfortably self-employed etc.
    He isn’t the only fsckin’ person with a disability in the US of frickin’ A.
    This is like saying the anti-discrimination laws dealing with race should be revoked because Barack Obama is President of the US and therefore there is no more need for them. Or the ones regarding women’s rights should be removed because Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State, and came second in the Democratic Presidential candidate preselction process, so obviously there is no more discrimination against any women anywhere in the whole darn country.
    Now, excuse me, I’m going back to the fanfic I was reading so I can simmer down a bit before I explode.

  4. he’ll say big and small businesses alike will make accommodations for the handicapped on their own, without government mandates, because it’s good for business. AHAHAHAHAHAH! Seriously?
    A lot of businesses were just scared out of their wits. Really? I might buy that, but what was the actual outcome of the complaint? And what *was* the complaint?
    and even the style of knob on your front door. … as if in the front door of someone’s house? Really? With a visual of what appears to be an office-style corridor? Fail.
    Even taking into account this was apparently a selection of one side of a much longer doco, the horror of this makes my skin crawl.

  5. “Because if I had been born after the law had been signed, I would be a loser today…I would be a loser because I know myself, and I know that as a teenager, I would have done anything to get out of work, to take extra money, to get on the government dole.”
    In other words, the ADA is bad because I, personally, am lazy.
    Logic win!
    Oh, and also, the only disabilities that count are blind, deaf and in a wheelchair. Because those are the only people who have, quote, “real” problems.
    And perhaps someone should clue him in that the reason drive-thru ATM machines have Braille is because companies don’t have an economic incentive to design separate models for walk-up versus drive through? /sigh

  6. One of the other things I recall from the bits that weren’t included in that snippet was mocking the description of disability including “having difficulty using a phone”. They showed Penn fiddling with a cell phone, shrugging, then tossing it over his shoulder and nabbing a disabled parking permit.
    Having difficulty using the phone – like, say, my grandfather who used to shake too hard to handle the smaller keys, or my grandmother who couldn’t read them? How about Don, who can’t speak loud enough to be HEARD on the phone? Just to mention three examples from my own life.
    But no – when these dudes heard “difficulty using the phone”, they could only think of how easy THEY find it to use a phone, so it must be silly-talk.
    Oh, also:
    “he’ll say big and small businesses alike will make accommodations for the handicapped on their own, without government mandates, because it’s good for business.”
    This has not actually happened in Halifax – despite the fact that 35% of the people in Nova Scotia have a disability.

  7. Anna: Having difficulty using the phone – like, say, my grandfather who used to shake too hard to handle the smaller keys, or my grandmother who couldn’t read them? How about Don, who can’t speak loud enough to be HEARD on the phone? Just to mention three examples from my own life.
    …And the entire deaf and hard-of-hearing population banged their heads on their desks in unison when watching that bit, I would imagine. (Because it was captioned on Showtime, at least.)
    Seriously? Penn & Teller consider deaf people to be worthy of counting in the total number of disabled people in the first place— unlike, say, the crutch-using interviewee, who is neither blind, deaf, nor a wheelchair user— and yet they don’t even remotely consider that deafness might give someone “difficulty using a phone”?
    I don’t even have hearing loss, per se, only auditory processing disorder, and it takes way too much effort to decipher what people are saying over the phone even when I can do so at all. It’s because of the ADA that there even is a taxpayer-funded service to transcribe what people are saying over the phone to text.

  8. I made it about 1:30 before I started yelling at the screen and had to stop watching. The smugness, it burns. The libertarians can go suck a rock. I hate them. Lauredhel, I commend your ability to watch the entire segment without turning into a howler monkey.

  9. Also, a slight correction– I think Perry says “there weren’t people kicking crutches out”, not “were”. Which… uh… does he remember ugly laws at all? (They’re from before my time– I was born in ’82– and I’ve still heard of them…)

    • I’ve enjoyed some other work Penn and Teller have done because it’s been goring oxes that I agree ought to be gored. The sheer level of “the stupid it burns” with the mistaken assumptions and points missed abounding in this episode makes me question the rigour of everything else they’ve ever done.

  10. @tigtog: Yeah, exactly. Some of Penn & Teller’s other episodes were quite brilliant in their skeptical mockery. But this episode isn’t even logically consistent with itself— at least based on Penn & Teller’s statistics, Greg Perry is both disabled and not disabled at the same time.

  11. @tigtog @codeman38
    Penn and Teller have professed to being Libertarians.
    I’m prepared to trust them on matters of scientific skepticism given their track record but be skeptical on political matters. The same as I would with Michael Sherman, another skeptic/Libertarian.

  12. Really?
    “he’ll say big and small businesses alike will make accommodations for the handicapped on their own, without government mandates, because it’s good for business.”
    Right. Tell me why almost every business on my towns main street has at least “just one step.”
    The rage… it is building.

  13. I trust Penn & Teller as far as I could comfortably spit a rat. I’m all for skepticism but these guys are far too friggin’ smug. I hated it when they were on “Numb3rs” cause the big dude can’t act and I hated seeing Charlie fawn after the guy. “Well Charlie, it’s like this!” Feck off.
    Then again, I hate big egos. Well, no, that’s not true. I hate big egos where I don’t see the justification. Houdini did the same damned job as Penn & Teller did, and I’m sure he was nowhere near as obnoxious.

  14. All of the scenes where people hold doors open for them and they stop and thank them, as if that just always happens everywhere and is suddenly threatened by the ADA, followed by the “I wish I could do that” about the guy in the wheelchair… OMG. So patronizing and condescending, I was embarrassed to read it.

  15. Have only seen a couple of not-directly-political episodes of it before, and I had a pretty strong hunch that they’re libertarians.
    They play on the idea that reality is really quite simple and commonsensical, and you know that — but these fancy academics and politicians with their years of education and experience don’t. On some occasions that may be true, but it’s a very seductive idea, and I’m pretty sure it’s the very basis of the popularity of libertarianism.

  16. What I don’t get is – why does it matter? Why does it matter to them that there is, for example, Braille on cash machines? Does it affect the machine’s ability to dispense cash in any way? How is that restricting anyone’s ‘freedom’? I’m honestly confused.
    Also, do they honestly think all disability falls only into the categories of ‘legally blind, legally deaf, and in wheelchairs or with serious mobility problems’? That is shocking.
    This is why libertarians fail. Pure, unadulterated privileged selfishness at it’s best. Whining about ‘freedom’ while happly trampling on the rights of others. Arseholes.
    (First post btw, finally delurked, love the blog).


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