The ADA at 25: Why Movements Matter Following Legislative “Victories”


The Disability Pride Parade in New York City, July 2015

Movement scholars have become increasingly interested in the ways in which social movements directly shape the policy agenda; that is, what role they play in how issues gain prominence in the government and how these issues get framed. Much of the focus has been on the relationship between increasing movement activity, such as organizational expansion, protest and lobbying, and increasing resources government allocates to an issue.

However, less is known about the link between movement mobilization and actual legislative promises once policies are enacted, especially in light of subsequent demobilization and issue decline. It’s important to draw attention to this less developed area of study given the renewed interest in defining successful social change and whether movements are themselves successful in influencing these (policy) outcomes.

Take for instance, the case of disability employment anti-discrimination legislation. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was proclaimed the “emancipation proclamation” for people with disabilities and the most significant civil rights law since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Not surprisingly, it was seen as an important victory for disability advocates in the government and for the disability rights movement. But, in a recent op-ed for USA Today, I argued that when it comes to employment and earnings outcomes, the ADA has failed to deliver. It has failed in part because the legislation was watered down to fit better with the Reagan-Bush-era politics, but also because of subsequently lax enforcement and conservative court interpretations.

Employment rates among people with disabilities have in recent years hit lows far worse than before the ADA was introduced in Congress in 1988. In addition, the earnings gap between disabled and non-disabled workers has remained largely the same over the last 25 years. Pam Fessler in a recent NPR article makes a similar argument claiming that today, disability and poverty still go hand in hand.

No doubt, the ADA has played a critical role in raising awareness about the struggles of America’s disabled citizens, but when it comes to employment and earnings outcomes, it is difficult to claim success. These failures have been acknowledged by both political elites and disability rights leaders.

Part of understanding the ability of institutional activists and the disability rights movement to target persistent labor market inequality following failed legislative attempts to fix it involves taking into account agenda-setting processes and social movement dynamics.

Most scholars who have directly investigated the connection between movements and policy suggest that movement activity declines when issues expand on the policy agenda. This makes sense. Movements may have had some degree of success in increasing or shaping the policy agenda, presumably with the goal of enacting new policy. Perhaps finding it harder to mobilize resources and interest as success appears imminent, movement leaders and groups may redirect efforts to other activities and targets.

Issues, though, don’t remain salient forever, and often decline following legislation. This isn’t necessarily a problem if policies provide the public goods its proponents and constituents demanded. But what if policies don’t like the ADA when it comes to labor market outcomes?


As the figure illustrates (more on this can be found in my article in Research in Social Movements, Conflict and Change), disability issue attention was relatively high in the period between the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the enactment of the ADA. But following the ADA, the amount of agenda space dedicated to disability declined. On the one hand, this landmark legislation closed the issue of disability rights (and perhaps disability more widely) in the federal government while on the other hand, it failed to improve the economic well being of people with disabilities.

At the same time, the 1990s reflected a shift in targets and issues for the disability rights movement. While there were intermittent protest events targeting federal budget cuts, protest shifted focus away from the federal government to include a variety of targets at the local and state levels. The movement also tackled a variety of issues that had little to do specifically with the ADA or employment discrimination like the Jerry Lewis Telethon, abortion, euthanasia, public housing and HIV.

The period following the ADA largely saw a decline in the use of direct action by the disability rights movement. Established disability rights groups maintained close ties with sympathetic elites in the government and provided testimony when they were called to Congress to testify about relevant issues. Recall though, that opportunities to be involved in the political process had declined dramatically since the early-1990s as the disability agenda space quickly contracted. Relatedly, based on data I gathered from the Encyclopedia of Associations, by the early-1990s, the disability organizational field began to shrink for the first time since at least the late 1950s.

It is within this context that both Republicans and Democrats – many who had supported the ADA in the late-1980s (including Senator John McCain) – and incumbent disability rights organizations like the American Association of People with Disabilities, championed the ADA Restoration Act. It was a response to what they saw as perverse court rulings that led to an interpretation of the ADA in a way congress never intended. In 2001, disability rights activists including the National Disabled Students’ Union and ADAPT held protests against these court cases in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. respectively. Indeed, both disability rights groups and politicians sought to raise awareness of these attempts to weaken the ADA. By the mid-to-late-2000s, members of Congress like Steny Hamilton Hoyer (D – MD) and Frank James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R – WI) were critical in promoting legislative amendments along with disability rights groups who participated in the few hearings held on the subject.

But seven years later, amendments to the ADA appear to have done little to improve the economic well being of America’s disabled citizens.

What disability equal employment discrimination reveals is that there are broader institutional and structural barriers as well as deep-seated altitudinal barriers that prevent policies like the ADA from doing their job. In a recent PBS Newshour interview, Rep. Jim Langevin who championed the ADA Restoration Act nearly a decade ago, alluded to some of this:

“…And there are some people that — some employers, I’m sure, that think that there are extraordinary measures that have to be gone to, to employ somebody with a disability. I would also say that there is the part that perhaps people with disabilities — there’s a fear factor of not wanting to go out to find a job because they’re afraid that they’re going to lose their long-term or short-term community supports, things like PCAs and such. There have been private — there has been private…”

What does this all mean for social movements? Why haven’t we seen more sustained direct action specifically targeting labor market discrimination and inequality, given the recent mobilization we have seen around inequalities broadly defined?

The answer likely lies in the processes and dynamics that occur following policy. More attention should be focused on the role of movements when issues decline and when policies struggle to provide the goods they were meant to deliver. Did the ADA in some way coopt the disability rights movement? It may be the case that as issues that were once more prominent decline in importance following key legislation (which is almost always the case if one subscribes to the theory of punctuated equilibrium), that movements can do little to curb that trend. This is problematic when these policies “fail.” During periods of abeyance and low issue salience, sympathetic elites, political entrepreneurs and incumbent organizations become especially important in maintaining interest and vigilance over issues. They can seek to do this through institutional channels. But is this enough? These efforts need to be supplemented by grassroots mobilization and direct action, including public awareness campaigns to further educate politicians, employers and the public.

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