While enacting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Senators Harkin and Kennedy each proclaimed its passage as an “emancipation proclamation” for people with disabilities. Fourteen years later, one wonders just how much (if at all) the disabled have been emancipated. One way to gauge whether social and economic empowerment has increased for people with disabilities after the ADA’s passage, is to examine their employment experiences. To date, empirical studies of post-ADA disabled employees’ labor market participation, are less than encouraging. Notably, two well-publicized empirical studies of the relative post-ADA employment effects on workers with disabilities find a reduction in their employment rate, concurrent with either a neutral or beneficial effect on their wages. These studies have sparked a growing debate among scholars who either support or challenge their findings. Nonetheless, even those economists seeking to explain the available data within the context of broader economic effects, concede that post-ADA disability-related employment (broadly defined) has not dramatically improved. At the same time, plaintiffs asserting ADA Title I employment discrimination claims in the federal courts have a lower win-loss rate than any other group excepting prisoner rights litigants. Specifically, an American Bar Association report found that employers prevailed in more than 92 percent of Title I cases between 1992 and 1997. Although a number of reasons may contribute to this phenomenon, the overall impression is dire. Thus, from a purely qualitative perspective, empirical analysis indicates that the ADA is not fulfilling its promise of empowering workers with disabilities.
By contrast, David Engle & Frank Munger’s thoughtful book, Rights of Inclusion: Law and Identity in the Life Stories of Americans with Disabilities (Rights of Inclusion), applies a non-economic metric to the question of whether the ADA is “working,” and in so doing provides an alternative appraisal of the statute’s efficacy. Utilizing qualitative analysis, Engle & Munger interviewed workers with disabilities who had never asserted disability-related employment discrimination claims. They conclude that the ADA’s mere presence has changed disabled persons’ identities by creating a vision of work-capable people who can be successful and vibrant employees if given the opportunity, including proper accommodations, to demonstrate these abilities. At the same time, Engle & Munger argue that the putative employment rights embodied in the ADA can only be brought to fruition if people with disabilities understand and embrace the statute’s normative aspirations. Their assessment of the ADA, as well as their subsequent proposal for a “new theory” of rights that can properly encompass the dynamics of disability identity formation, are therefore both internal, and contextual, to those individuals whose life stories are presented in Rights of Inclusion.
This Essay seeks to bridge the inquiries made by the two normally exclusive disciplines of economics (the external, quantitative empirical radar) and sociology (the internal, qualitative assessment of rights discourse), by presenting a third path: an initial expressive law analysis of the ADA (examining the phenomena that exist beneath the empirical radar). That approach considers how (external) law can influence (internal) individual behavior by altering broader social norms, an approach not addressed in Rights of Inclusion. In considering those precepts, I am particularly interested in building on the expressive law gloss presented in Alex Geisinger’s “belief change” theory, which identifies and models a process through which regulations can affect norms and preferences.
Part I sets forth the disability life stories chronicled by Engle & Munger, and the conclusions they draw from those experiences about the nature of identity and rights theory. Next, Part II describes the general goals of expressive law scholarship, and adumbrates Alex Geisinger’s “belief change” theory. Part III depicts existing socio-legal norms on the disabled, and the aspirations contained in the ADA. Part IV then sets forth a preliminary expressive law analysis of the ADA. The Essay concludes by reinterpreting, from an expressive law perspective, some of the disability life stories portrayed in Rights of Inclusion.