On Wednesday, Dec. 5th, I defended my dissertation which asked the following question: “Why is the U.S. an innovator in disability rights?” Although I could not help but rethink my answer to this question in light of the Senate voting against ratifying the U.N. disability treaty the day before, I still posit that the U.S. was an innovator on disability rights compared to other western industrialized countries.
Without getting into the history of disability and disability rights in America, it is important to note that political entrepreneurs played a critical role in the late 1960s and early 1970s in reframing disability as a minority group entitled to rights. Continue reading
What WE Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement, by Fred Pelka. Amherst and Boston: UMass Press, 2002.
Fred Pelka’s recent book, What WE Have Done: An Oral History of the Disability Rights Movement, is not a traditional scholarly text which analyzes the dynamics of the disability rights movement. The book is based on in-depth interviews mostly with key activists from three sources: Pelka’s own interviews, interviews recorded by the group Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), and oral histories from the Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. The book is structured around key events and places in the disability rights struggle, predominantly focusing on the politics of the Americans with Disabilities Act (although the interviews and accounts capture a lengthy historical period as many of those interviewed provide recollections of the past going back as far as the 1950s). Admittedly in his preface, Pelka claims that the chapters and interviews are not always presented in chronological order but rather tend to move back and forth through time in order to capture the thoughts of activists about a specific event, organization or policy. Pelka’s voice is mostly present in his preface and to a lesser extent, in his introductory chapter where there is a blend of analysis and interviews. His first chapter provides a fairly straightforward and traditional historical background of the disability struggle which is found in other texts that trace the history of disability rights and the disability rights movement. The rest of the book is largely structured around the oral history he presents. Continue reading
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is seen as an important victory for the disability rights movement after a long struggle for a comprehensive civil rights law protecting persons with disabilities form discrimination. Unlike the Rehabilitation Act (whose Section 504 was the first truly rights-oriented language in American disability policy), whereby political entrepreneurs had much more to do with constructing and shepherding the policy that subsequently lead to the rise of the modern disability rights movement, key movement figures were much more aware and active in the politics leading up to the ADA. Yet, although the ADA was drafted in 1988, signed into law in 1990 and took effect in 1992, my colleague, Michelle Maroto, and I were surprised to learn that employment rates and economic well-being among persons with disabilities have actually declined over the last 20 years. In drafting a manuscript on the subject, we essentially find two arguments seeking to explain the failure of this law: one claims that the ADA increased the cost of hiring persons with disabilities – unintended harms – so to speak; the other suggests that the ADA was never truly applied due to judicial resistance and narrow, illogical interpretations that favored employers over plaintiffs. Beginning in 2006, both activists and institutional entrepreneurs formally acknowledged the “failure” of the ADA (at least in improving economic conditions) through a set of hearings that would eventually lead to the ADA Restoration Act of 2007/2008. By and large, what was being restored was the intent of the ADA which had been undermined by the courts – the courts have historically not been champions of reasonable accommodation. Continue reading