The Frailty of Disability Rights

35 Pages Posted: 3 May 2020 Last revised: 29 Oct 2021

See all articles by Jasmine Harris

Jasmine Harris

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School

Date Written: July 28, 2020


Whoever said pandemics were equalizers doesn’t know a thing about disability legal history. It does not take much of a pretext to rollback disability rights. This is because disability rights laws, despite enumerated principles of equal opportunity and civil rights, have always been viewed as “nice to do” and not “must do.” Simply put, society continues to misunderstand disability—what it means, who the category includes or excludes, its relationship to impairment, its valence and construction as an identity. Moral and religious-tinged frames have trumped the perception of disability as a protected class akin to race, gender, or national origin. This view explains Congress’s intent that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) play, not only a remedial role for disability discrimination ex post, but a proactive, ex ante role in upending problematic social norms that treat disability and incapacity as synonymous. Similarly, the perception of disability as a different kind of civil right helps explain the Supreme Court’s interpretive missteps in the infancy and adolescence of the ADA and Congress’s direct reproach and redirection of the Court in the ADA Amendments Act eighteen years later.

Inattention to underlying social judgments about disability and the associated discrimination has caught up with us. Progressive legislation in this pandemic without requisite interventions designed to address how people interpret the disability laws offers precarious protections for people with disabilities. The stakes could not be higher in some areas, namely, life or death denials of health care access based on certain disabilities or biased quality of life measures.

Disability scholars in recent weeks have largely focused on addressing why COVID-19-related rationing on the categorical basis of disability offends federal (and state) disability antidiscrimination laws as a means to ensure people with disabilities have access to life-saving medical treatment in and out of hospitals. They persuasively apply disability laws and principles of legal and medical ethics to show why disability is an improper consideration in rationing care and resources. The underlying problem with rationing is much larger and is slowly unfolding with respect to access and rights in other areas including education, housing, and employment. That is, it is not just about devaluation of the lives of individuals with disabilities; it is a symptom of something much deeper. The pervasive and negative impacts of this devaluation will endure long after the immediate healthcare issues are tackled.

This Essay surfaces a broader, unresolved issue in disability law laid bare by the current pandemic—that disability rights have never had the public understanding and buy in necessary to exercise and interpret disability laws to generate largescale structural reform. As a result, when people with disabilities are seen (and treated) as unequal, deficient, and incapable, legal enforcement of antidiscrimination laws is, at best, seen as optional and aspirational, creating space for the current manifestations of disability discrimination during the coronavirus crisis. These problems are compounded when medical supplies, personnel, and time are limited.

Part I describes real time rollbacks of disability rights in the healthcare access context that are currently unfolding, and the legal responses designed to push back on health care rationing. I then shift to a less studied area, access to education, an evolving landscape as students across the country face the realities of distance learning. Part II argues that the current forms of discrimination lay bare the fundamental information deficits about disability that negatively skew legal interpretation and undermine the protections of disability laws. Part III identifies key questions and areas of concern as we contend with the virus and its aftermath.

Keywords: COVID-19; public health law; disability law; disability rights; civil rights; health law

Suggested Citation

Harris, Jasmine, The Frailty of Disability Rights (July 28, 2020). The Frailty of Disability Rights, 169 U. Pa. L. Rev. Online 29 (2020)., Available at SSRN:

Jasmine Harris (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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