Vol. 11 No. 4 (April 2001) pp. 170-172.

EMPLOYMENT, DISABILITY, AND THE AMERICANS WITH DISABILITIES ACT: ISSUES IN LAW, PUBLIC POLICY, AND RESEARCH by Peter David Blanck (Editor). 488 pp. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2000. Cloth $75.00. ISBN: 0-8101-1688-X. Paper $34.95. ISBN: 0-8101-1689-8.

Reviewed by Judith Lynn Failer, Department of Political Science, Indiana University, Bloomington.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Peter David Blanck convened an interdisciplinary group of scholars, professionals, and activists at the University of Iowa to mark and celebrate the law's accomplishments, as well as to plan and advocate for its future. The result is this volume, which contains papers on the state of research on the ADA, the implementation and economics of the Act, and the meaning of disability in American culture. All told, the collection provides a useful introduction to the ways that the ADA has--and has not-- helped disabled people in the United States, as well as to the ways that it might be put to better use in the future.

Congress passed the ADA in 1990, and in the past ten years, the law has gone a long way toward improving public accommodations for the disabled. Ramps, larger parking places, wider bathroom stalls, and lower public phones and elevator buttons are now commonplace features that aim to serve the disabled. The ADA also aims to prevent employers from exploiting handicaps as a basis for unfair discrimination in the workplace. It is this part of the law the book aims to assess. As Blanck points out in his preface, U. S. Census data show that the employment rate for people aged 21-64 is 82 percent (or 77 if you include those with minor disabilities) while the employment rate for the severely disabled is 26 percent. Among the disabled who do manage to find work, the level of earnings is substantially lower-whether the disabilities are severe or not (pp. xii-xiii). These disparities raise a red flag suggesting discrimination, an injustice that is not only unfair to the potential workers but one that also tends to deprive the workforce of qualified persons. Moreover, keeping able workers from holding jobs tends to add to the public debt insofar as people who cannot work often become dependent on government entitlement programs. Assuming that our society wants to enhance its labor force and reduce unnecessary dependence on welfare, Blanck et alia want to know whether the employment provisions in Title I of the ADA have been and can be successful at helping to realize these ends.

The volume has three stated goals. First, it aims to clarify the facts about disability and what it means to be disabled. This is important because there are many myths about what physical impairment means-myths that unfortunately go on to affect employability. As Douglas C. Baynton describes in his essay, "Bodies and Environments: The Cultural Construction of Disability," people have long assumed that physical and mental impairments necessarily render people disabled from participating in life's basic activities. However, what it

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means to be "disabled" has varied over time and by culture. In light of the history he recounts, it becomes much easier to see how impairment is not the same thing as disability, and that the latter is primarily a "cultural and political matter, a social construction" (p. 387) that affects how we construe the former. It is only once we see how this is the case that the ADA can go on to be fairly and effectively implemented.

Second and taking up the majority of the book's concerns, the volume aims to communicate the facts about disability and the law to "ADA stakeholders" so that they might be able to plan and act more effectively to help integrate the disabled into the workplace. For the most part, the essays examine existing empirical studies on the disabled and the ADA. There are essays about the implementation of the ADA that focus on the efficacy of bringing charges of discrimination and other enforcement issues, its utility for the mentally disabled, and procedures for screening for disabilities. There are also essays on attitudes about the disabled as well as the economics of the Act, including examinations of the costs of workplace accommodations, the use of older workers, and wages for the disabled. Other essays examine the way the law shapes practices of hiring and firing disabled workers as well as the persistence of a "glass-ceiling" phenomenon that keeps disabled workers from reaching the upper echelons of their workplaces. Several essays call for additional descriptive research: one outlines a "roadmap" for ADA Title I research that illuminates the complexities of studying employment discrimination and another identifies a research agenda.

Third, as a whole, the volume aims to enhance implementation of the ADA's employment provisions. Most of the essays take this as a starting assumption, although a few dispute whether it will ever suffice to rid the polity of all discrimination against the disabled.

In short, the book asks two questions: Does the ADA work and can it work better?

Clearly this is a work of advocacy. The editor assumes that the ADA is good, as do the vast majority of the authors. I share this assumption, but I believe that left unexamined, as it is here, it comes at a cost to the book's utility for readers outside the community of disability studies. The book provides interesting assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of the ADA in its efforts to end unfair discrimination against the disabled, but because it is explicitly aimed at ADA "stakeholders," it leaves to one side the many questions that the ADA raises for political scientists. Most obviously, and with few exceptions, the authors do not address whether the ADA is the right method for ending discrimination. To do this, there would need to be a careful examination of the ADA in the context of civil rights laws. For example, the authors might ask how well civil rights laws end unfair discrimination and in what ways is the ADA similar to and different from other civil rights laws. Neither do the authors focus on the questions the ADA raises for democratic and constitutional theory, i.e., who should pay for the necessary accommodations, private employers? The states? The national government? Finally, it fails to address who should be bound by the ADA. This matter came to the fore just after this book went to press when the Supreme Court held that states are not bound to follow the ADA for their own employees (BOARD OF TRUSTEES v. GARRETT 2001). The questions of federalism that the ADA raises are not new,

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however, and are important for political scientists.

In a related vein, I suspect that the readers of this review would also find unsatisfying the way the authors in this volume treat "the law." They view the law in a doctrinal and mechanical way, leaving unexamined the ways that the law reflects political beliefs, serves as a mode for politics by other means, and takes on a life of its own both inside and outside the courts. What students of law and politics take to be axiomatic about the complexities of law goes unaddressed here. The law is simply taken to be the federal courts' holdings, all nuances of interpretation, process, and politics notwithstanding. For advocates who aim to get judges to rule in particular ways, this approach to study of the law is entirely appropriate. For scholars who aim to understand how the law works, however, this approach leaves us wanting more.

I do not intend the previous paragraphs to serve as criticism of the book. After all, the authors do not purport to address the ADA as a matter of law and politics. Insofar as the volume aims to assess the ADA from within the framework of descriptive disability studies, it provides useful summaries of existing literature. Nevertheless, because the volume is framed as a work of advocacy, I suspect its utility for readers of this review will be primarily as background information that helps lay the groundwork for further political and jurisprudential analysis.


BOARD OF TRUSTEES v. GARRETT, 121 S. Ct. 955 (2001).

Copyright 2001 by the author, Judith Lynn Failer.