The Disability Rights Movement:
A Sociological Perspective
Department of Sociology
What’s a social movement ?
• A social movement “is a set of opinions
and beliefs in a population which
represents preferences for changing some
elements of the social structure and/or
reward distribution of a society”
• social movements are often represented
by formal organizations
• Targets vary
Social movement success
• What do social movements do and how do we
know they’re good at doing them?
• Have to look at the target
– They shift public opinion
– They influence the media
– They affect policy
– They become co-opted into the state
– They influence court cases
• A note on cooption as a negative outcome
Ways we think of social
• I will discuss three major sociological
theories which I will apply to disability
• Resource mobilization
• Organizational ecology
– Density dependence
• Political Process
– Political opportunity structure
• How have we empirically tested these theories?
• Two major cases: women’s movement and black
civil rights movement
• We found that women and black civil rights
movements have experienced similar
mobilization due to political opportunities in the
• We also found that groups became more
professionalized over time and less protest
oriented in the 1970s and 1980s
What is the disability rights
• Some sociologists would argue there was no disability rights
movement until much later
– There was little mobilization as sociologists would define it until the
• Were organizations actually able to mobilize resources for
beneficiaries so as to promote social change? (RM)
• Doesn’t appear that organizations were organized around
advocacy (as strategy) (Ecology)
• What political opportunities are they responding to if not
those other movements were responding to? (Political
• Remember, our theories have been tested using specific
• Does this make sociological theory unable to explain
disability rights? On the contrary, we can use these theories
to explain disability rights mobilization
– Because the same processes are at work, just that the case and
timing is different than women’s movement and black civil rights
What makes disability rights an
interesting empirical case?
• A movement that has had to define its place
within a civil rights frame
– What does this mean and why is this important?
• For much of its history, beneficiaries were not
– Why might this matter to social movements?
• Don’t have a “necessary opposition”
• A movement that already had an advantage that
most other movements didn’t have and this is an
advantage that was not a result of the
movement: The Rehab Act of 1973
– “the movement was in the government”
What do I expect to find?
• Resource Mobilization
– Professionalized groups are able to use resource-expensive tactics
like lobbying and legal mobilization but this won’t happen until there
are advocacy oriented organizations
• Organizational ecology
– Prior to the late 1970s, disability groups will be service-provision
oriented, and probably single focused.
– Later, due to density-dependence, organizations try to adapt and
adopt new more advocacy or protest oriented strategies.
• Political Opportunity
– But organizations will only adopt advocacy or protests if the
environment in which they operate calls for it
– Why the late 70s and 80s? Rather than responding to an opening in
the Political opportunity structure, they were responding to
• What am I referring to here?
Social Movements and Legal
• A specific tactic used by movement
organizations is initializing the courts on
behalf of plaintiffs
• But legal mobilization is a resource-
expensive strategy because it requires
money, staff and expertise
• But the payoffs could be great
– Monetary, expansion of case law, setting
What do studies show?
• Extra-legal or policy based models for legal
– Justices’ party affiliation, preferences, won’t hear
cases they know the court won’t overturn, etc.
• We also know that EEO studies have found that
cases with amicus curiae are more likely to get
heard, and also more likely to have a favorable
• EEO mobilization in the 1970s experienced a
favorable tide when courts were sympathetic to
African American and women plaintiffs
Disability rights and legal
mobilization: An empirical question
• What laws are disability plaintiffs mobilizing?
– Does it matter to ask this question?
• Rehabilitation Act: Reasonable Accommodation
and Undue Hardship
– What has been the problem or what may distinguish
disability plaintiffs from others?
• Did you know that Nixon vetoed the Rehab Act
twice, but never because of the affirmative
action section. It was the costs of
accommodation that sent out a signal.
What is needed then for disability
legal mobilization to be successful?
• Advocacy organizations
• Resource-rich organizations
• Legislation under which to file suit (or at
least, an impetus to use the courts)
• Positive/negative reaction by courts can
stimulate further mobilization
A victory for one minority is victory for all?
Why do you think scholars would say this?
Do you agree?