William & Mary Law Review


Studies of law and social change often focus on areas of intense conflict, including abortion, gun rights, and various issues around race, gender, and sexual orientation. Each of these has entered the culture wars, inspiring fierce resistance and organized countermovements. A reasonable assumption might be that social change in less controversial areas might be easier. In this Article, I suggest that it is not that simple. Using the disability rights movement, I demonstrate how flying under the radar leads to unappreciated obstacles. The disability rights movement had a relatively easy path to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an omnibus federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. Disability rights were not an issue of major public importance when the ADA was passed; the vast majority of people were completely unaware of the law’s passage. Moving forward, to the extent awareness of the ADA exists, it has centered on public and judicial trepidation over granting what is perceived as some form of benefit, for which there has not been an extensive public dialogue, to a large and amorphous category of people, many of whom have no natural claim to any history of discrimination. Thus, a new way to understand the ADA’s inability to make more progress on some of its more transformational goals is the limited socio-legal conflict around disability rights, combined with the expansive categories of people the ADA intended to cover. It is hard to transform society if society is not paying sufficient attention.