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Saturday, October 2, 2021

Universalizing Disability Rights

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the civil rights of people with autism and other disabilities

Ari Ne'eman at NYT:
[A]ctivists may need to consider universalizing the disability movement, presenting disability rights as broad protections available to all Americans, not just those who self-identify as disabled.

There is some precedent for this. Conceptually, scholars have long promoted a “social model” of disability, which presents disablement as emerging out of the interaction between an individual and their environment. Just as dyslexia would be unlikely to be diagnosed in a pre-literate society, so too are other forms of disablement only noticeable when context makes them important.

The experiences of those with at-risk diagnoses during Covid offers a powerful validation to what at first seems like abstract theory. By one estimate, nearly half of American adults have a chronic condition that places them at greater risk. Their medical issues existed before Covid, many even met the technical criteria for A.D.A. protections — but they are now more relevant than ever before.

Disability legal protections are similarly flexible. When the Supreme Court issued a series of opinions restricting the definition of disability, leaving many people with less obvious impairments out of the scope of nondiscrimination law, advocates convinced Congress to pass the A.D.A. Amendments Act of 2008. The law ensured the A.D.A..’s definition of disability was interpreted broadly.

There are other examples to build on. Laws like the Family and Medical Leave Act (F.M.L.A.) and HIPAA’s privacy protections (under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) overwhelmingly benefit disabled people — but because they create rights available to all, they are thought of as universal, not targeted, protections. Similarly, the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition on insurers charging more to those with pre-existing conditions represented one of the greatest disability policy achievements in a generation. Yet few saw it as a gift only for the disabled because proponents sold it to the public as a universal benefit that helped everyone.

Not every disability policy priority can be recast in such universalist terms. Sign language interpreters or supported employment services could never be replaced by broad and diffuse benefits spread across the entire population. Relatively few people need these things, and those that do need them to be financed with a level of resources far above what others get. In such cases, the framing of an oppressed minority group is useful. Even if the disability movement is to expand beyond identity politics, it won’t be able to leave them entirely behind. The prism of identity remains essential for many whose disability experiences are defining.

Still, the disability rights movement could position many other disability priorities as public goods, akin to clean air or privacy rights. Laws like the A.D.A. would still serve as a backstop for the minority that identifies as disabled, but could also come to be seen as useful protections for a larger public, much like HIPAA or F.M.L.A.