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This essay is the Foreword to the 2022 University of Pennsylvania Law Review symposium on “The Disability Frame.” “The disability frame” refers to the characterization of a particular controversy or problem as being “about” disability, which in turn can imply that disability-focused laws ought to resolve or adjudicate the issue. We see this frame function in at least four ways. First, the disability frame is sometimes invoked as a shield, with the hope that it will insulate someone from the reach of the state or exempt a person from an unwelcome or onerous responsibility (e.g., jury service, vaccination, a criminal sentence). Second, the disability frame may function more like a positive right, offering access to such resources as housing, accessible transportation, educational services, health care, and income support.Third, the disability frame may form the basis for a more systemic or policy-level demand on the state, such as masking requirements, abortion restriction, or government-funded healthcare. Fourth and most darkly, the disability frame has sometimes served as a reason to deny individuals basic rights and freedoms, such as sexual agency. What runs across these examples is contingency: the disability frame is rarely the only available option; when an issue or problem is framed in disability terms, that framing reflects a calculation, a choice. Notably, the disability frame has become a more prevalent choice in recent years. It is discernible not only in legal scholarship, but also in court filings, activist campaigns, and public debates. Why is this the case? And how should we evaluate this trend? These questions animate the contributions to this symposium. After introducing the concept of the disability frame, this essay pursues two goals. (1) We provide an overview of several themes we see running throughout the symposium, and by extension, throughout the suite of disability laws and policies that the disability frame rests upon. We focus our discussion on opportunities, costs, and constraints. (2) Because we hope this symposium will serve as a model for others, we summarize how we and our collaborators attempted to incorporate a disability justice perspective into the design of the symposium itself. We conclude with reflections on what can be gained from a critical examination of the disability frame and how that intellectual project connects to broader struggles for inclusion.


disability, disability law, disability justice, health law, civil rights, reproductive rights, social welfare, public benefits

Publication Title

University of Pennsylvania Law Review

Publication Citation

170 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1663 (2022)