Towards an Urban Disability Agenda

22 Pages Posted: 6 Oct 2020 Last revised: 29 Oct 2021

Date Written: July 27, 2020


The overwhelming majority of Americans with disabilities live in metropolitan areas. Yet those areas continue to contain significant barriers that keep disabled people from fully participating in city life. Although political and social debate has periodically turned its attention to urban issues or problems — or even the so-called “urban crisis” — during the past several decades, it has too rarely attended to the issues of disability access. When political debate has focused on disability issues, it has tended to address them in a nationally uniform way, without paying attention to the particular concerns of disabled people in cities. Even when city leaders have focused attention directly on the impact of disability policy on their municipalities — for example, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell’s attacks in the mid-1990s on the Americans with Disabilities Act’s (ADA) requirement to install curb cuts — they have done so as part of a more general attack on mandates on state and local governments, in and out of the disability context.

This essay, written for a symposium on disability and the city, asks the question of what we should want from an urban disability agenda. It begins by setting out some principles that should guide such an agenda. It then highlights some of the key barriers, in existing law and politics, for achieving those principles. In the last section, a brief conclusion, it speculates on the prospects for addressing those barriers — and ask whether the COVID-19 pandemic has made effective action on this front more or less likely.

This contribution is an exercise in issue-spotting. Its goal is not to set forth a detailed critique of any current urban policy, nor is it to offer any particular path forward. Rather, it is to identify some key considerations for policymakers to address as they construct a truly inclusive urban agenda.

Keywords: disability, urban planning, infrastructure, transportation, smart cities

Suggested Citation

Bagenstos, Samuel R., Towards an Urban Disability Agenda (July 27, 2020). Fordham Urban Law Journal, Forthcoming, U of Michigan Public Law Research Paper No. 683, Available at SSRN: or

Samuel R. Bagenstos (Contact Author)

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States


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