On Disability …and Penn and Teller

On the show Bullshit, by magicians Penn & Teller (P&T), various topics (such as UFOs, 9/11, bottled water, recycling, etc) are discussed from their unique point of view. I generally enjoy this show for its spectacle and the topics they discuss, even though they are biased (though they fully admit it). They have even admitted to mistakes, such as their stance on second hand smoke, so props to them for that. However, in my opinion, sometimes their politics interferes with their common sense and detracts from the overall quality of their arguments.

In the episode “Disability” (Season 5, Episode 7), they really screwed up big time.

Their Argument in a Nutshell

Laws (specifically The Americans with Disabilities Act) that encourage universal or accessible design and attempt to reduce discrimination are unfair because 1) they don’t perfectly encompass all disability, 2) they have led to some absurd applications of the law, 3) the cost, determined by the intrusive government rules, is absorbed by taxpayers and business-owners, and 4) they can sometimes be annoying to able-bodied people.


Where They Go Wrong

The argument is specious from the get-go, particularly their relatively familiar tactics designed to bias the audience towards their point. For example, in the first few minutes as they introduce the topic, they have a muscular man in a cambered, lumbar back wheelchair (for the unfamiliar, this is a chair for a relatively fit person with exceptional trunk control) wheel around several obstacles, easily clearing them.

This is, in short, not an accurate representation of the average wheelchair user. Many people in wheelchairs have comorbidities (or primary diagnoses) such as trunk weakness, inability to maintain midline gaze/head, poor hearing/eyesight/tactile sensation, weakness, etc. due to conditions like muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, MA, ALS, stroke, etc. Any number of other issues in addition to “can’t move legs” (which seems to be the only variable P&T took into account) can make navigating a world with steps, narrow doors, round handles, etc. too much to bear on a daily basis.

As usual, P&T have chosen the best possible example that would make their point. To use this man as a fair representation of disabled people is at best disingenuous and at worst ignorant. These kinds of attitudes towards disability have caused decades of marginalization that has been significantly reduced because of laws that enforce inclusive design.

As medical science advances, so does people’s survivability with inevitable consequences such as reduced mobility and other issues. Some people are athletic enough to have no problem with wheelchair mobility after, say, a spinal cord injury around the low thoracic level. Many other people can’t get by as easily. Ignoring the disabled was a community-level ethical issue that was not adequately addressed until there were laws.

The Penn and Teller Perspective, Point by Point

So let’s get to the main points of their argument, individually (note that these phrases weren’t uttered word for word, this is my own summary of the common themes I noticed):

1) ADA doesn’t perfectly encompass all disability.

P&T provide a few examples of disabled people who are well-adapted to their disability and dislike the ADA, too. However, if these people are functionally able to go about their daily business in an adapted way on their own without the need for a law, are they the kind of “disabled” that is the target of laws like the ADA? I would argue that they are not, though they do potentially benefit from the legislation due to associated shifts in community perception and participation.

They also go to the other end of the spectrum and demonstrate how a person in an iron lung can’t fit through the doors designed to allow wheelchairs through. They make the argument that because the laws aren’t truly universal, the ADA is pointless. Though it is unfortunate that some people are still unable to participate fully in society because of design limitations, the millions of disabled Americans who have been greatly liberated by these laws may feel differently about the so-called pointlessness of the ADA.

Arguing for improvement is one thing, but arguing that the entire Act is useless because the regulations aren’t truly universal is ridiculous. This argument also ignores other functions of the Act — civil rights improvements and community acceptance through raised awareness.

2) Some applications of ADA are absurd.

P&T provide examples of silliness, such as braille on a drive through sign, as if those examples negate the entire premise that we should be striving for a more universally accessible society. They don’t. Bureaucracy and inappropriate application are not relevant to the spirit and utility of the ADA as a whole.

They also take issue with the fact that people with cognitive deficits can park in handicapped spaces. Who are P&T to judge what levels of disability aren’t disabled enough to “deserve” a parking space? That is, quite frankly, deeply disrespectful to all people living with a cognitive deficit. There are arguments to be made about the difficulty (for some people) or relative ease (of others) in achieving disability status under the ADA, and therefore gaining the associated “benefits”, but to completely dismiss an entire group of disabled people as if they are undeserving of consideration is inexcusable. It is not the fault of the cognitively disabled that some other people may try to take advantage of the ADA.

3) The cost, determined by the intrusive government rules, is absorbed by taxpayers and business-owners. We can’t legislate compassion; business owners are encouraged to have universal design because it would increase business.

The history of the disabled in America before the ADA begs to differ with the latter part of this argument. In fact, the story about the man who was complaining about the cost of putting in a ramp indicates that priorities tend to center on the bottom line over human compassion. I also take issues with the argument against ramps because they’re supposedly ugly. Irrelevant.

Should we abandon the goal of universality because some business owners are not getting appropriate subsidies for ramps and other adaptations? Again, the failure to successfully apply a law is not a reflection on its necessity or overall usefulness. Perhaps there is room for improvement and greater incentives for people to make these changes (as perhaps accommodating fellow citizens is not motivation enough), but that does not mean the law itself is unjust or unnecessary.

4) ADA regulations can sometimes be annoying to able-bodied people.

Handicapped parking spaces. Now, there are admittedly issues with this practice (such as the habit of putting these spaces in the busiest and most dangerous area of the parking lot) that should be addressed, but why shouldn’t people with disabilities be accommodated in public parking areas when it causes very little extra effort (if at all) on the part of able bodied people?

While it may seem silly, I’d like Penn & Teller to try and wheel themselves to and from a grocery store parking lot (maybe even in the snow), weaving their way through cars looming over and whizzing by and compare that to their everyday experience of being parked a mere 5-10 extra feet away. Or see a person with a significant cognitive deficit navigate the confusing hustle and bustle of the lot. Seriously.

Regular parking spaces are too small for most adapted cars. So people in wheelchairs can park in a regular space, but they can’t use their ramps to get out. Wheelchairs also tend to have a lot of gear on them and are heavy to cart around.

To complain about a minor perceived inconvenience to an able-bodied person as justification for not accommodating the disabled is extremely selfish. It’s easy to be annoyed with these things when there’s nothing wrong with you.

Accessibility and Politics

We need to get it through our able-privileged skulls that we should be building accessible in the first place. I recognize that there is a significant financial cost to making adaptations in existing buildings, but isn’t it unjust to not be able to leave the house because it’s not possible to get in anywhere? Do handicapped people not have the right to go where they please like the rest of us, particularly government and civic institutions? While I agree that the ADA may not always be applied in the best way, and there is certainly room for criticism, overall it has seemed to do more good than harm and its faults do not negate its necessity.

Unfortunately, I think that much of this episode stems from libertarian beliefs that government should not interfere with behaviour. P&T seem more annoyed that the government has made a law forcing people to “be nice” than they are with the ADA itself. However, one role of government is to recognize societal issues and deal with them accordingly with the resources they possess when the people are ignorant of a problem.


The American Disabilities Act (ADA) is in place to protect people because, unfortunately, if there were no laws forcing public places to be inclusive, they wouldn’t be. This law was born out of necessity because people in privilege (in this case, the able-bodied) have the luxury of ignoring problems that aren’t theirs until something forces them to pay attention. Had we been inclusive of all people from the get-go, we wouldn’t be in a position to fix public buildings with a 1-inch lip at the door, round doorknobs, no elevators, etc. Disabled people aren’t new, they just couldn’t leave the house, were ignored, were put in “homes”, etc. The ADA has successfully, in my opinion, raised awareness of disability issues and increased independence and social participation for the disabled.

That is not to say that the issues are gone or that discrimination isn’t still a problem (it’s certainly apparent in this episode of P&T), but these laws have significantly improved the quality of life for many disabled people. Are the laws perfect? Certainly not. Are they always applied in the most sensible way? Not necessarily. But can a person in a wheelchair now board a bus to go to the grocery store? Most of the time, yes. Before these laws, the answer was almost always “no”. So, no the solutions aren’t applicable to every single disability, but they do allow for a majority of people to engage in activities from which they were previously prohibited largely because of noninclusive design.

But my biggest objection to this episode: What is the alternative? Other than to suggest that people should be left to their own devices to ensure that the disabled are able to participate in greater society, which is apparently ineffective, they make no concrete suggestions for improvements to the ADA or for what we should do instead. What a poor argument to tear holes in something that is admittedly non-perfect, but perhaps the best we can do at this point, yet provide no solution. All in order to defend selfishness.


3 thoughts on “On Disability …and Penn and Teller”

  1. The Penn & Teller formula is shooting itself in the foot. Their arguments ad hominem (though often entertaining), their self-admitted bias, and hand-waving arguments rule the show. When it does hit the nail on the head, it’s because the audience has the necessary background knowledge to confirm that P&T are pointing their criticism in the right direction. This show is at best comic relief for skeptics (and entertainment to the masses who will most likely take it on face value), not in any way a good source for consumer protection.

    1. The main organization that seems to be responsible for wheelchair standards is the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (some of the regulations they’ve developed are summarized here). Also see the International Organization for Standardization for more information. Canada also has federal laws regarding assistive devices in motor vehicles. If any other readers have further information, I invite you to provide links in the comments. Thanks!

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