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Disability Rights and Disability Justice

A passion for equality drew me to law school, and I have been working in that field ever since, yet it was years into my civil rights career before I came to learn about the Disability Rights and Disability Justice Movements.  I had been litigating disability discrimination cases under the ADA and local laws for many years when Disability Rights Advocates recruited me for their disability impact civil rights practice.  As I deepened my understanding of the ADA, I also learned about the movement that drove it and the people it left out—and I know I still have much to learn.

Disability Rights

I learned first that many begin the story of disability rights in the United States in the post-World-War II decades.  Veterans and polio survivors began to band together and by the 1970s formed a visible movement that drew on the Black civil rights movement, demanding to be treated not as objects of charity but as human beings with equal rights.[1]  The documentary Crip Camp tells the story of a group empowered by these ideas who went on to demand legal change. 

Sid Wolinsky, DRA’s co-founder, told me about his friendship with Ed Roberts, an early disability rights pioneer who fought, successfully, to attend the University of California after the school tried to rescind his admission because his iron lung would not fit in a dormitory room. Roberts co-founded the first of the disability-led Independent Living Centers

The ADA is perhaps the signature achievement of the Disability Rights Movement.  A 1990 bipartisan law, it broke new ground in the civil rights world by requiring affirmative accommodations rather than just formal nondiscrimination—the law recognized that a step is as discriminatory as a sign saying “no wheelchairs permitted.”  Yet the rights framework can be limiting.

Disability Justice

One cannot look at the history of US slavery, the stealing of indigenous lands, and US imperialism without seeing the way that white supremacy leverages ableism to create a subjugated ‘other’ ….”[2]

Patty Berne, co-founder of Sins Invalid, a disability justice based performance project.

Sins Invalid, a disability justice based performance project, has published a working definition of Disability Justice and its relationship to the Disability Rights Movement. According to this account, Disability Rights had a place: “Prior to the Disability Rights Movement, if people with disabilities were mistreated, there were no legal repercussions.” But a “second wave” around 2005 noted that the Disability Rights focus on litigation and bureaucracy often addressed symptoms but not root causes. 

Sins Invalid points out the Disability Rights Movement focused on disability to the exclusion of other kinds of marginalization:  “At its core, the disability rights framework centers people who can achieve status, power and access through a legal or rights-based framework, which we know is not possible for many disabled people, or appropriate for all situations.” Rights can be most helpful to those who already have a strong voice to claim them.

Does Law Still Have a Place?

Much of what I read about Disability Justice, like Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book Care Work, recounts the failures of law and legal rights movements.  As a white, nondisabled lawyer, I think it is my job to listen and to represent clients, not to drive litigation around my own worldview.  But I still believe community lawyering provides a method and opportunity to do that.  Based on my experience so far, I believe civil rights law still has a place, as a tool in the toolbox, to keep us moving forward as a society.


[1] See, e.g. Doris Zames Fleischer & Frieda Zames, The Disability Rights Movement 1-13 (Updated Ed. 2011) (2001); Joseph P. Shapiro, No Pity 5-6 (1993); Peter Blanck, Disability Law and Policy 7-8 (2020).

[2] Patty Berne, Skin, Tooth, and Bone—The Basis of Our Movement Is People:  A Disability Justice Primer, 25 Reproductive Health Matters 149, 149 (May 2017), quoted in Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarsinha, Care Work:  Dreaming Disability Justice 21 (2018).