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Civil rights legal scholars and practitioners have lamented the constraints of the largely intent-based legal framework required to challenge racial discrimination and injustice. As a result, they have sought alternative methods that seemingly require less overt proof of discrimination and are more equipped to address structural harm. One of these proposed solutions involves the use of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—due to its affirmative mandate to address discrimination by reasonable modification or accommodation—and the framing of issues of racial injustice in terms of disability or the deprivation of medical rights. Environmental justice, an area in which issues of both race and disability are salient and affect one another, is one such context in which advocates have tried to use the ADA to challenge broader structural harm. This Article analyzes cases in which practitioners have used the ADA to challenge issues of environmental injustice to examine the purported utility of the ADA, and disability and medicalization framing, more generally, in addressing structural racism and injustice. Specifically, I discuss the attempted use of the ADA to stop the construction of a petrochemical plant in “Cancer Alley,” Louisiana and to challenge mold on behalf of public housing residents in New York City.

The use of the ADA to challenge environmental injustice has clear legal and social justice narrative benefits that explain its appeal, including the required inclusion of people with disabilities in environmental justice campaigns that disproportionately impact them, but from which they are often left out—except for as examples of the negative consequences of harm. However, the promise of these legal theories has not been adequately tested to proffer the ADA as a true alternative to race-based civil rights laws, and there are many suggestions that it is not. Furthermore, the use of disability as both narrative harm and legal strategy in environmental justice campaigns raises important considerations for racism and ableism as interrelated institutional harms. Therefore, any attempt to expand the disability frame in this direction requires an understanding of racism that does not exclude or otherwise undervalue ableism and vice versa. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating the same problems.


The Disability Frame: Opportunities, Costs, and Constraints in the Broad Struggle for Inclusion

University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 170, Issue 7 (July 2022), pp. 1721-1756