Penn Jillette doesn’t know his ADA from a hole in the ground

23 Jun

Apologies for the title. But watching a Penn and Teller Bull**** episode a few times over has inundated me with profanity.

Penn and Teller are a magician team. They also have a show on American cable TV, Bull*****. They have an upcoming episode on the anti-vaccine movement and because of this Penn has recently put out a short video about Andrew Wakefield. When I blogged that piece, one commenter noted that Penn and Teller have taken on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming it is “bull**** on wheels”. OK, the commenter didn’t quote the “Bull**** on wheels part, but that’s how Penn describes it.

I found that there was an episode of Bull***** called “Handicap Parking”, in which Penn and Teller take on the ADA. The episode is below. Warning, Penn is fluent in profanity.

This is the first episode of “Bull****” I have watched. I will say parts of it are interesting. Watch what is going on in the background. There is a guy who is very adept at getting around in his wheelchair. Certainly more of an athlete than either Penn or Teller (or I, for that matter). Even while is he there to make the point that one can be in a wheelchair and still be quite capable, he also would not be able to get out of his car if someone were to park right next to him–and that is at the very beginning of the episode. No one is free from being poked at. Take the gentleman who most closely tells the story that Penn is promoting. At one point they have a voiceover from that gentleman talking about how with the ADA in place, people are not compassionate and accommodating. In contrast to that message, the video shows strangers pausing to open doors and be polite to him.

But those events are minor compared to some of what is said and done on that show:

Where to begin? I realize that they only had 30 minutes, but the ADA is not just about physical disabilities and certainly not just about parking. Penn’s approach is not so much ableist as libertarian: the government shouldn’t be mandating “compassion”. There’s ableism in there, don’t get me wrong. When discussing accessible buses he comments, “if you were disabled and lived in New York City what more could you ask for…other than not to be handicapped?”

Now here’s the bit of chicanery that got me to blog this. This comes about 4 minutes into the part 2 video.

“Who does the ADA classify as disabled? It starts with people who use a wheelchair, cane, crutches or a walker…” He goes down a list until he gets to “Now it gets a little vague. And here’s where it gets f***ed up. You see, in order to get to that 50 million number, according to the government, also includes people who have difficulty keeping track of money, doing light housework, and using the phone. No s***.”

They then cut to Teller in his car looking quizzically at his cell phone. When he can’t figure it out, he puts up a handicap placard and gets out. Yes, if you can’t use a phone you get to park in a blue space.

They are using the absurd to make a point with Teller and the phone. Sure. But what about Penn’s voice over leading up to that? Is he quoting the ADA? No.

The definition of a disability according to the ADA is:

(1) Disability

The term “disability” means, with respect to an individual

(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual;

(B) a record of such an impairment; or

(C) being regarded as having such an impairment (as described in paragraph (3)).

(2) Major Life Activities

(A) In general

For purposes of paragraph (1), major life activities include, but are not limited to, caring for oneself, performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, lifting, bending, speaking, breathing, learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working.

(B) Major bodily functions

For purposes of paragraph (1), a major life activity also includes the operation of a major bodily function, including but not limited to, functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions.

(3) Regarded as having such an impairment

For purposes of paragraph (1)(C):

(A) An individual meets the requirement of “being regarded as having such an impairment” if the individual establishes that he or she has been subjected to an action prohibited under this chapter because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment whether or not the impairment limits or is perceived to limit a major life activity.

(B) Paragraph (1)(C) shall not apply to impairments that are transitory and minor. A transitory impairment is an impairment with an actual or expected duration of 6 months or less.

No language “if you can’t use a phone, you get a handicap parking space.”

Where did that come from? They have a visual in place to support Penn’s voice over. That document is here. Did you notice the link? That’s a document from the Census Bureau, not a quote of the ADA at all. It’s a bit of sleight of hand, if I may call it that. He tells us the figures and definition are from the ADA website, but is actually using a document and statistics from another agency (the Census Bureau) created for a different purpose.

Maybe ada.gov has the 50 million disabled statistic Penn refers to. If so, I can’t find it. It doesn’t change things. Penn uses one definition of disability–a broad definition–to make the claim that the ADA is too broad.

This allows Penn to say, “The ADA equates the difficulties of a 21 year old blind girl with severe autism to some a-hole who can’t figure out how to use redial”.

No. The ADA does not equate the two. But that would get in the way of Penn’s narrative–that there are a lot of people without “real” difficulties who are misusing the ADA. One of his guests asserts that “Without this law, the *truly* handicapped would be socially, morally and financially better off than they are today”. Rather than back that statement up with some data Penn goes to comedy, pushing a guy in an iron lung around Hollywood.

As the episode goes on, they bring up a man who does appear to be misusing the ADA to demand money from businesses he claims are not accessible. Yep, there are bad people of all sorts. I won’t disagree there.

Nothing, including the ADA, should be above criticism. I have no problem with Penn and Teller taking a critical look. The ADA is far from perfect. But it’s important enough to get their facts straight. Also, I would disagree with the claim that society would be as accommodating if the ADA weren’t in existence.

His take, as I mentioned above, is rather libertarian. He quotes part of the purpose of the ADA, “to provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities”. He then follows with, “How about the government sticks to courts, police, defense and corruption and leaves compassion to the people who f***ing have it!”

Nice straw man there. The ADA isn’t about compassion. The word “compassion” isn’t in the text anywhere. One can be bereft of compassion and not discriminate and one can discriminate while being full of compassion. It isn’t about making people physically equal as Penn asserts.

I’ll leave you with one last segment. One of the guests comments that accessibility is similar to racial discrimination. Penn counters, “Equating handicap access with racial discrimination is bullshit. Black people weren’t allowed in the front of the bus due to Jim Crow laws of segregation. Handicap people can’t get on the bus because of Isaac Newton’s laws of physics”.

What a strange comment. Here’s a hint for Penn: lift mechanisms on buses use Isaac Newton’s laws of physics.

The Court–part of what the government is supposed to do in his libertarian view–can require buses use Newton’s laws to allow access. Frankly, buses aren’t included in Penn’s litany of what the government should do anyway, but don’t let that get in the way of a good narrative.

37 Responses to “Penn Jillette doesn’t know his ADA from a hole in the ground”

  1. =^skeptic cat^= June 23, 2010 at 06:37 #

    Google: Paul Fleiss, Eliza Jane Scovill, Penn & Teller and circumcision, for a taste of how dangerously misinformed P&T are … They’re not scientists or anything of the like. They’re a couple of right-wing jerks disguising their political activism for skeptical inquiry.

  2. Chris June 23, 2010 at 07:42 #

    Yeah, that irritated me quite a bit.

    As far as discrimination goes, kids like mine were denied access to public schools because they could not talk (and some were of normal intelligence but in wheelchairs) until the first version of IDEA came around in the 1970s.

    There was a news story about the time my son was starting his special ed. preschool in 1991. It was about the language and learning ability of a woman who was denied access to school in a rural district on the west coast. It was later determined when she was a teenager that her lack of language was not from being mentally deficit, but because she was deaf. According to the news story she did fairly well after getting instruction, but even her ASL was a bit odd because she was denied communication for so long (sorry, going on memory… but it was a news story that hit a chord with me, since my son could not do “something as simple as talk” at that time).

    The example of the idiot lawyer suing businesses that were accessible was really an anecdote, and not real data. Where I live idiot lawyers got money for suing the city on how they financed light poles and fire hydrants (separate suits, years apart).

    Buses in my city have been wheelchair accessible since the 1980s because of demand. And as I have said, I have found advantages to them. In the days of using strollers there were multiple mom discussions on how to best get around downtown (it is a very hilly… it helps to know which building lets the public use the elevators to go from from 4th Ave. on the first floor to 5th Ave. on the 5th floor).

    Plus I am very angry at the notion that ADA was supposed to get the disabled employed. My son is not disabled enough to qualify for the Department of Developmental Disabilities. The agency hired by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation never did help him with his resume, and they seemed to flake out. But so did my son. Unfortunately that is another topic to do with mental health services (long story, but not uncommon with certain hidden disabilities… it is a another very long rant that has to do with another relative).

  3. Synesthesia June 23, 2010 at 15:11 #

    I haven’t seen his video about ADA, but i saw the one on circumcision and I think I agreed with it because it was against it and I totally don’t think circumcision is medically necessary, but I don’t agree with his take on ADA as outlined here anymore than I agreed with TAA when he did a video on it.

  4. otl550 June 23, 2010 at 18:07 #

    That is the truly unfortunate thing about Penn and Teller. People often take their misinformation as truth, and form opinions and take action based upon that erroneous information. Penn and Teller are a couple of stand up comics, nothing more. Their “opinions” count as much as any kid standing behind a counter at the local McDonald’s. Their “comedy” is a transparent attempt at disguising their political ideology, and their act a subtle dissemination of their ideologies. Boring!

  5. Sullivan June 23, 2010 at 21:35 #

    otl550,

    Penn and Teller have an episode coming up on vaccines. My guess is that they will have enough holes in their arguments for groups such as those represented at AoA to complain that they are being picked on and deflect the very valid criticisms of their positions.

    But, they would probably do that anyway.

    One more observation–Penn and Teller and their guest make a big point out of how drive up ATM’s are required to have braille. This is ridiculous, in their view, since someone would need a braille steering wheel to drive up. Ha Ha.

    I guess no one in their team thought of a blind person in the back of a car being driven to an ATM? What are they supposed to do? “Hey, cabbie, here’s my card and my pin. Would you withdraw $40 for me?”

    Geez.

  6. Chris June 23, 2010 at 22:01 #

    Or that it is cheaper to make a standard ATM keyboard with braille for use in a walk up kiosk, and not a special one for drive ups.

  7. codeman38 June 24, 2010 at 17:21 #

    As someone with auditory processing disorder who frequently uses the relay service– the one that was instituted, in large part, because of the ADA– I ‘love’ how P&T interpret “difficulty using the phone” as someone who can’t manipulate the buttons on a telephone. Rather than, say, someone who can’t freaking hear.

  8. Joseph June 24, 2010 at 18:03 #

    Even if you can hear, but can’t figure out how to use the buttons of a phone (for any reason) that’s clearly a major disability, with significant implications on functioning. It boggles the mind P&T decided that’s something that should be made fun of.

  9. tkwelge July 11, 2010 at 18:23 #

    The problem with you people is that you almost entirely missed the point of the episode. When Penn was making fun of the fact that braille is on ATM machines, he may have been off base, but his larger point that the ADA allows government to regulate every aspect of the way a business runs still stands. I’m not saying that a lot of those regulations don’t make sense, the point is that it is just another way that people give up their autonomy to government. What if a business can’t afford to install wider aisles or more disabled friendly features until their business gets up and running? Under the ADA, just by opening their doors, they could be sued, and in many locales, they wouldn’t be able to operate in the first place.

    “What a strange comment. Here’s a hint for Penn: lift mechanisms on buses use Isaac Newton’s laws of physics.”

    Um, that WAS PENN’S POINT! Black people were not sent to the back of the bus because there was an extra cost associated with allowing them to sit in the front of the bus. It was racism. If a bus doesn’t have an expensive piece of machinery attached to it, that is not racism.

    Anytime somebody criticizes BS, they tend to glom on to some small part of what Penn said, and completely ignore the larger issue being presented.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 02:38 #

      “Um, that WAS PENN’S POINT!”

      Um, no it wasn’t. With Newton’s laws of physics intact, a person in a wheelchair can ride a bus. His comment was pseudo-intellectual. It makes it sound like he can back up his comment when he can’t. When he says that Newton’s laws of physics prevent a person from riding a bus, he is incorrect. It sounded cool though.

  10. tkwelge July 11, 2010 at 18:30 #

    http://www.ada.gov/business.htm

    Do a ctrl F: million. This site directly references “50 million individuals with disabilities.”

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 02:40 #

      “Do a ctrl F: million. This site directly references “50 million individuals with disabilities.” ”

      Thanks for that.

  11. tkwelge July 11, 2010 at 18:31 #

    “Rather than back that statement up with some data…..”

    Except they did bring up the data point that since the ADA, the employment of people with disabilities has not increased.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 02:41 #

      “Except they did bring up the data point that since the ADA, the employment of people with disabilities has not increased.”

      Actually, they make the assertion. It may be accurate, but they didn’t bother to support the idea. That’s my point. If you can find something that backs up the statement, I would sincerely appreciate seeing it.

  12. Joseph July 12, 2010 at 02:18 #

    I’m not saying that a lot of those regulations don’t make sense, the point is that it is just another way that people give up their autonomy to government.

    We get he has a libertarian POV about regulation. But to support his position, he did bring up arguments that make no sense under scrutiny; arguments that show he understands very little about disability. For example, at one point they make the argument that there appear to be way too many disabled people who fit the ADA definition of disability, if you compare it to the number of people who are blind, deaf, or require a wheelchair.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 03:20 #

      “We get he has a libertarian POV about regulation”

      Actually, I don’t. I don’t get how a man who relies upon the copyright laws for his very livelihood adheres to a libertarian viewpoint. It would appear to this observer that the government is protecting him. From the little I have read on the net about libertarianism and copyright, it would seem that I am not alone in this.

  13. tkwelge July 12, 2010 at 19:42 #

    “For example, at one point they make the argument that there appear to be way too many disabled people who fit the ADA definition of disability, if you compare it to the number of people who are blind, deaf, or require a wheelchair.”

    The ADA website does say that there are 50 million disabled americans, which is one in six. The ADA does indeed lump a bunch of impairments together and treats them equally. This is all true.

  14. tkwelge July 12, 2010 at 19:56 #

    “Um, no it wasn’t. With Newton’s laws of physics intact, a person in a wheelchair can ride a bus. His comment was pseudo-intellectual. It makes it sound like he can back up his comment when he can’t. When he says that Newton’s laws of physics prevent a person from riding a bus, he is incorrect. It sounded cool though.”

    You missed the point. Penn did not say, “Because of Newton’s laws of physics, a person in a wheelchair will never be able to ride a bus.” His point was that not allowing blacks to sit in the front of the bus is a completely different animal than a bus company not having an expensive chair lift that would allow someone in a wheelchair to ride. Black people were being discriminated against because of the color of their skin, whereas people in a wheelchair are being discriminated against by the laws of physics. A person in a wheelchair cannot ride a bus without an expensive chair lift that, because of Newton’s laws of physics.

  15. Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 20:15 #

    I didn’t miss the point at all. You appear to be missing mine.

    No one can ride a bus without an expensive piece of equipment, generally provided by the government: a bus. That piece of equipment makes use of Newton’s Laws of Physics, allowing people to get from one place to another. By implementing steps on the bus, again in accordance with Newton’s laws of physics, it allows people of normal physical abilities and stature to get onto and ride the bus. Without, say, steps, many people (the elderly, those of shorter stature, etc.) would not be able to ride on the bus. We just accept those accommodations because they fit the standard definitions of “normal”. They are accommodations, nonetheless.

    The design of the bus which allows some segment of the population to ride. There are adaptations made so that most people can ride–steps, doors, seats, etc.. The question is how much effort must be made to accommodate a greater portion of the population? Not whether accommodations should be made. They are already made.

    But the majority says, “those aren’t accommodations” because they fit the majority’s needs. It isn’t accurate.

    “The ADA website does say that there are 50 million disabled americans, which is one in six. The ADA does indeed lump a bunch of impairments together and treats them equally. This is all true.”

    This is an odd statement. What does it mean to say that an impairment is “lumped together” and “treated equally”? First, impairments are not treated under the law. People are.

    Besides–if the ADA website claims the same 50 million figure that is based on the census definition and not the ADA law–it is wrong too. The ADA law does not offer protections to all people with the impairments as noted in the census survey.

    Also, the level of accommodations made should be concurrent with the level of disability and the type of disability. Again, they are not “equal” under the ADA.

    “this is all true” is not an accurate statement.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 20:43 #

      You (and Penn and many others) have defined a bus as a vehicle which can accommodate people of average needs. It is an artificial definition. There is no fundamental reason why a bus should be defined in such a way. You can say “it costs extra” to put a lift mechanism on a bus. “Extra” compared to what? Again, compared to a bus which accommodates the majority. It is still a vehicle which makes accommodations.

      We put steps on a bus. They cost “extra”. But they accommodate the majority. We put seats on a bus. They cost “extra’ but they accommodate the majority.

      If you want to define a bus as that which accommodates the majority, leaving out the disabled, feel free. Don’t expect me to sign on to it.

  16. Dedj July 12, 2010 at 20:51 #

    “What if a business can’t afford to install wider aisles or more disabled friendly features until their business gets up and running?”

    A new build should not have any trouble incorporating disability friendly features as part of the basic design.

    The ADA only requires that existing buisnesses removes barriers as and when resources become available.

    This is clearly laid out in the guidance for businesses which is openly and publically available on the ADA website in the most obvious and logically appropriate location.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 21:12 #

      “A new build should not have any trouble incorporating disability friendly features as part of the basic design.”

      Many features might be more expensive to add as a revision, as well.

  17. Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 21:02 #

    Let’s look at the Cato institute document (since it was the first one I clicked on)

    “11.6 percent of men and women
    in the working-age population (ages 18
    to 65) reported a health impairment
    that limited either the type or amount of
    work they could do. That percentage
    has been rising: in 1986, for example, 9.6
    percent of the working-age population
    reported a disability.”

    So, there was a 21% increase (9.6–>11.6) in the size of the population defined as disabled.

    At the same time, they claim that the fraction of the disabled who were employed went down 10.9% (for men, Table 1). At the same time, the overall employment rate went down 3.9%.

    First, the total number employed went up, didn’t it? You add 20% to the population considered “disabled” and the employment rate drops 10%? Doesn’t that mean that more people considered disabled are now employed?

    Second, how much of the drop was due to the idea that the disabled would be laid off at a higher rate than the non-disabled?

    Third, consider this statement:

    “On the other hand, the disabled who are most often portrayed in
    newspaper articles about the excesses of ada—the mentally
    disabled and substance abusers—represent only 6.7 percent
    of the disabled population.”

    I’m curious as to why “substance abusers” are considered to be the public’s view of “disabled”. That aside–

    6.7% of 11.9% is about 0.8%. The prevalence of mental retardation is considered to be about 1% on it’s own. (actually, a strict definition of more than 2 standard deviations below the average would be 2.3%).

    I could take some more time with this, but suffice it to say that I find that document lacking.

  18. tkwelge July 12, 2010 at 21:27 #

    “First, the total number employed went up, didn’t it? You add 20% to the population considered “disabled” and the employment rate drops 10%? Doesn’t that mean that more people considered disabled are now employed?”

    You’re using simple addition when that is not the way that it works in this situation.

    “No one can ride a bus without an expensive piece of equipment, generally provided by the government: a bus. ”

    OMG! Are you not seeing the difference between the additional cost associated with a wheelchair ramp vs the non existant additional cost associated with the difference in the color of a passenger’s skin? Why are you not understanding this incredibly simple point. The point was that discrimination against blacks and the unavailability of wheelchair ramps on buses are two completely different things.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 21:31 #

      Can you move away from the comparison of race? I didn’t make it and I have not used it in this argument. You did notice that didn’t you? Sorry, you obviously didn’t you wouldn’t be doing an “OMG” statment.

      My comment was that Mr. Jillette’s statements about Newton’s laws of physics were applied incorrectly. If you wish to try to divert the discussion, feel free. Just don’t claim that I made the arguments you are putting into my mouth.

      I am using more than simple addition. It’s called multiplication. It is also quite valid in this case. Using the Cato insititute’s own numbers, the total number of disabled people employed went up after ADA.

  19. tkwelge July 12, 2010 at 21:30 #

    [“Extra” compared to what? ]

    “Extra” compared to the cost associated with a rider’s skin color being different. If somebody in a wheelchair wants to ride a bus, it is more costly to accommodate them than somebody who doesn’t need a wheelchair. If somebody is black, it doesn’t cost extra to accommodate them.

  20. Dedj July 12, 2010 at 21:33 #

    “The ADA does indeed lump a bunch of impairments together and treats them equally. ”

    The ADA provides a definition of disability which clearly does not regard any and all impairments as being the same.

    The ADA requests that ‘reasonable adjustments’ be made. Those ‘adjuestements’ are not required to be the same fo all people.
    Individual employees must be regarded on an individual basis.

    At no point does it require that that all impairments be treated the same, which is what would be required for your claim to:

    a) make any sense
    b) have any validity as a counter arguement

    Again, this information is freely available and easily found.

  21. tkwelge July 12, 2010 at 21:35 #

    Do a freakin google search. It is generally accepted fact that the ADA has not led to an increase in the employment of the disabled. Period.

    • Sullivan July 12, 2010 at 22:05 #

      Why should I do a “freakin” google search? You provided me with a document which gives data which runs counter to your argument.

  22. Dedj July 12, 2010 at 21:57 #

    “Do a freakin google search. It is generally accepted fact that the ADA has not led to an increase in the employment of the disabled. Period.”

    First, we extended a basic level of presummption of intelligence and background knowledge to you. That you lack the common decency to do the same to us does not speak well for you as a person.

    Secondly, it is not a ‘generally accepted fact’. Indeed, some of the sources available are self-contradictory and inconclusive. You have simply cherry picked the ones you like.

    Even the Cato paper makes the mistake of assuming that the disproportionate rate of job loss in people with disabilities was due to the ADA. This is despite the numerous factors that affect employment of people with disabilities during recession and economic hardship. The same figures could be used to make the case that the ADA is applied strictly enough

    Choe appears to have ignored the pre-exisitng decline in employing people with disabilities, although I’d have to read the paper more throughly to be sure of what Choe is trying to say.

    Thirdly, the ADA does not cover just employment, nor does it cover just employment rates, but also discrimination once within employment. It is not sufficient to merely talk about employment rates.

  23. Dedj July 12, 2010 at 22:11 #

    “OMG! Are you not seeing the difference between the additional cost associated with a wheelchair ramp vs the non existant additional cost associated with the difference in the color of a passenger’s skin?”

    The point was that there are already costs to allow ANYONE AT ALL to ride any bus.

    Busses already cost from $40k for the small ones up to $200k-$300k for the intercity caoches. W/C buses cost very little more, as both an absolute or comparative expense. The question is whether we are willing to accept the extra cost for the extra benefit, not whether there is a decision to be made.

    This is in no way comparable to racist bus policies. You will cease making the false comparison.

  24. Joseph July 12, 2010 at 23:21 #

    Black people were being discriminated against because of the color of their skin, whereas people in a wheelchair are being discriminated against by the laws of physics. A person in a wheelchair cannot ride a bus without an expensive chair lift that, because of Newton’s laws of physics.

    But see, while that sounds superficially plausible, it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when you consider the social model of disability.

    Suppose a school doesn’t want to provide left-handed desks. Because of the laws of Physics — they’d argue — left-handed students are just out of luck, so they need to be forced to use right-handed desks. A expense would need to be incurred in order to accommodate the left-handed students, would it not?

    Or suppose a restaurant doesn’t have special chairs for infants. Because of the laws of Physics… you get the point.

    Lots of things you take for granted are designed to accommodate your lack of abilities. For example, you can’t see at night without a technological aid: lighting. You can’t fly on your own, so there are airplanes. All of these things are expensive.

  25. Father Time March 30, 2011 at 07:54 #

    It’s not the same. They had to choose to not allow blacks on the bus. If they can’t afford a lift or can’t get one then they couldn’t get handicapped people on even if they wanted to.

    • Sullivan March 30, 2011 at 17:56 #

      Father Time,

      what if they can’t afford a bus at all? Is it OK to not provide service to anyone? Are we only required to provide services for “normal” people and everything else is “extra”?

  26. Dedj March 30, 2011 at 19:52 #

    “They had to choose to not allow blacks on the bus.”

    No, they didn’t.

    They had to choose to allow white people on the bus, by a: providing a bus, b: running in on a circuit that people would use, c: charging an affordable price, d: actually stopping the bus to let people board and disembark.

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