Disability, Vulnerability, and the Limits of Antidiscrimination
56 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2009
Date Written: 2008
Despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), disabled Americans face substantial barriers to entry into the workplace, lack material supports including health care and transportation, and may not receive reasonable accommodation that best supports their functioning. In addition, individuals with impairments have difficulty qualifying as disabled for disability protections. In light of these problems, some commentators suggest that a civil rights or antidiscrimination approach to disability discrimination - an approach for which activists fought for twenty years prior to the enactment of the ADA - may not adequately address disability discrimination. Some critics advocate a return to the social welfare model that ADA activists struggled to avoid, namely, a model focused on material supports for disabled persons.
I argue that reforming disability law requires a blend of the civil rights and social welfare models as informed by a novel lens: vulnerability as universal and constant. The current antidiscrimination approach to disability law reform is limited because it views disability as a narrow identity category and fragments disability protection. Fragmentation, a new concept I develop in this Article, results when susceptibility to disability discrimination is treated as if it arises in discrete environments, such as the workplace and particular places of public accommodation. Viewing vulnerabilities as situational generates a host of problems: it results in a patchwork of protections that do not coalesce to allow meaningful social participation, fails to appreciate the hyper-vulnerability (extreme sensitivity) of disabled individuals to certain environmental changes, artificially restricts the protected class by creating a false perception that some individuals with significant impairments are not disabled because they are able to function in particular circumstances or environments, and disregards the benefits of conceptualizing vulnerability to impairments as affecting disabled and nondisabled persons alike.
Interpreting Martha Fineman's theory of vulnerability and applying it for the first time within disability legal studies, I argue that vulnerability to disability and the vulnerabilities disabled individuals experience more acutely than those without disability are both universal and constant. The shared vulnerabilities of disabled and nondisabled individuals suggest the need to restructure completely social institutions to respond to barriers to work and social participation. For practical reasons, I advocate a compromise focused on disabled persons with regard to accommodation for employment and some aspects of social participation: a move away from the standard antidiscrimination approach, which fragments protections, to an approach that treats vulnerability as extending across environments and enables a broader provision of material supports for disabled individuals. In particular, the reasonable accommodation mandate should be expanded with governmental supports to allow disabled workers accommodations both inside and outside the workplace that facilitate their employment. Additionally, a dialogue between employers and employees about accommodating disability should be mandatory, and employees should be entitled to reasonable accommodation that supports their preferred methods of functioning. Given the current legal structures in place, however, recognizing vulnerability to illness as universal suggests the need for universal health care, or treating access to health care as a matter of social welfare rather than disability law.
Keywords: disability, discrimination, vulnerability, civil rights, employment, health law
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