Last week, the Supreme Court acquiesced to another attack on the voting rights of all Americans. In a 5-3 decision, the court blocked a trial judge’s ruling permitting Alabama counties to offer curbside voting as a reasonable accommodation to disabled voters.
Alabama’s ban on curbside voting was challenged by People First of Alabama, an advocacy organization run by people with developmental disabilities, using the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. People First was represented by civil rights groups like the N.A.A.C.P. and the Southern Poverty Law Center, and its challenge to to the voting restrictions was noteworthy not only because it sought to protect the rights of disabled Alabamians, but because it used a disability rights law to fight a restriction designed to suppress the turnout of Black voters.
This is not unprecedented. Disability rights law offers a valuable set of tools for civil rights advocacy of all kinds. Because the ADA requires reasonable accommodations and modifications to enable accessibility, people with disabilities can seek changes to generally applicable policies that are much harder to challenge through other statutes. And because disability is more prevalent among racial and ethnic minorities, disability rights statutes can be applied to a broad range of civil rights problems.
Recent litigation challenging the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule, restricting the entry and naturalization of immigrants likely to use social-welfare programs, makes use of disability rights law to protect immigrants. Because the administration sought to penalize immigrants for making use of public services disproportionately or primarily relied upon by people with disabilities, the door was opened for disability and immigration activists to work together in support of a common goal.
Nor is the A.D.A. the only disability rights law that offers a useful vehicle for advancing racial justice. During the Obama administration, the Department of Education sought to combat the segregation of minority children into special education classrooms by leveraging the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Though the Trump administration tried to roll back these protections, the courts soon restored them.