HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Case Western Reserve University School of Law

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The ADA’s Imagined Future

Doron Dorfman (Syracuse University), The ADA’s Imagined Future, 71 Syracuse L. Rev. (2021):

Afterword to a symposium issue on the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a seminal text in disability studies, Alison Kafer addresses the concept of futurity—an investment in and attention to the future. Specifically, Kafer confronts a common notion, namely that no conceptualization of a good future, neither on the individual nor on the public level, can include disabled bodies/minds. A future involving disability is too often deemed to be banal, pathetic, and lonely. It is also costly and futile to society as a whole that allegedly receives nothing in return from people with disabilities. That is why conceptions of the future typically include methods to normalize and eliminate disability through means of coercive treatments or selective abortion. Yet Kafer tells of a different “imagined future,” one that is ripe with community and possibility. It includes finding supportive relationships, having a family, and embarking on a fulfilling career. And it is a future filled with activism, meaningful work for social justice, and coalition building with other movements to benefit the masses. Kafer concludes, “I have written this book because I desire crip futures: futures that embrace disabled people, futures that imagine disability differently, futures that support multiple ways of being.”

While this Special Volume reflects on the first three decades of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), this essay, similar to Kafer’s work, delineates an imagined future for the ADA, one that would create the infrastructure allowing people with disabilities to thrive and have a meaningful and rich future such as what Kafer imagines.

Many issues can spring to mind when discussing a brighter future for disability justice, from better integration in the workforce to the creation of support structures for disabled parents. Due to limited space, however, I will focus on three primary reforms to the ADA that reach well beyond this legislation as we know it today. The first is the need to have a specific chapter and regulations on emergency relief for people with disabilities. If the recent years have taught us anything, it is that people with disabilities are often left behind during natural disasters or in a global health crisis. And though the ADA may apply in retrospect through litigation, guidelines for creating emergency plans that would help save lives of disability communities ex-ante should be embedded in legislation. The second reform relates to the enforcement of accessibility standards in both the built and online environments. In response to the ADA accessibility standards’ failure to be widely and properly enforced, I suggest a move to a centralized system alongside the current model of private enforcement to ensure greater compliance with these standards. The third, and perhaps most ambitious reform, recognizes the need to ensure universal health care coverage. I join other disability law scholars to suggest that to truly remove structural barriers and allow inclusion of disabled individuals in all areas of life, we need to eliminate health disparities between disabled and nondisabled Americans. Doing so means guaranteeing meaningful access and coverage of services even beyond that which is provided in the Affordable Care Act.

Such a broad view for the imagined future of the ADA recognizes the limitation of one antidiscrimination statute and moreover aligns with the Disability Justice framework. Disability justice is often referred to as the “second wave” of the disability rights movement. This approach seeks to transform social conditions and norms to eradicate ableism and to ensure equality in a broad sense. The ambitious goals I set for the future can only be achieved through an expansion of the current scope of the antidiscrimination mandate underlining the ADA as it exists today.

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